Understanding the Foundations
Final Essay for the Master of Christian History Course
By Daniel L. Moore
What happened in the first century, the execution of a charismatic preacher, still impacts people. At the time the execution of Jesus Christ occurred, it was considered a relatively minor incident when viewed from the Roman Empire's perspective. It was no different than the arrest and execution of a local terrorist. The man was innocent of any crimes and did not have a physical army or kingdom to overthrow Rome with.
Why the fuss? When one analyzes the sermons that Jesus Christ preached, they seem do not seem to advocate violence. In fact the strongest language was directed to his own nation's leaders. He advocated loving one's enemies. He healed a Roman centurion's servant, cleansed a Samaritan of his leprosy, cast a demon out of a Gentile woman's daughter, and dared to heal on the Sabbath. He emphasized the sharing of resources in order to help those less fortunate. So what was His crime? That he dared forgive people of their sins and that rocked the boat of the local religious leaders.
He was prophetic. He dared to say that he would be arrested, tried, beaten and then executed. Then he said he would be raised from the dead on the third day. The key doctrine of the Christian faith is the death, burial and resurrection of Jesus Christ. There were over 500 eyewitnesses to this. Early historians make mention of this – often as a minor footnote, after all it is Rome – and then there is the movement of followers.
Jesus did not "found" a new religion. He was a Jew who claimed to be the Messiah. His recorded miracles were such that they could not be tricks or illusions – like raising Lazarus from the dead after the body rotted for four days. There was the fact that Jewish synagogues were often used by the evangelists like Paul and others that were "conveniently" located throughout the Roman Empire. They were the repositories for the Jewish Bible which the evangelists would teach from and then show how Jesus fulfilled the messianic prophecies. They would then offer the Gospel – the plan of salvation. The initial church was Jewish.
Complementing the movement was the universal language of the empire at that time – Greek. Also, Rome had built roads and secured the waterways so that travel was relatively safe. For a generation, the followers of Christ were able to spread their message of the Gospel with ease. As the Gospel spread, the non-Jewish peoples began to hear and respond to the message. The fact that Jesus often emphasized the poor and that the slave population of Rome was quite high led to many of the poorer economic levels becoming Christian.
The call of Saul of Tarsus, later known as the Apostle Paul, was a stroke of the divine. He was a business man, a trained Jewish scholar, and a passionate follower of God who would use his talents to extend the church. His missionary strategy was to start with a major city located on a major transportation hub – like a port or where several major highways met. Once a church was established in a major city, the outlying towns would be targeted.
From the beginning, the church had a simple yet effective organization. The apostles were the initial leaders of the church and would be replaced by bishops. Priest – sometimes called elders or pastors – would lead the local congregations and would be assisted by faithful servants called deacons. The early bishops served as missionaries to new areas by leading teams to start new works, ordaining elders and deacons, and helping them as they grow. The bishops would also stay and eventually serve as a senior pastor to a group of churches in a city and in the outlying towns.
Persecution of Christianity caused the leaders to defend its teachings to the outside world, to develop a unifying doctrine or creed for the church to combat any heresies from within, and to unify the various documents we know today as the Bible.
From my study of these lessons, I determined that the church had an excellent start but along the way the culture tended to creep in. The legalization of the church was both a positive and a negative. Though the church had freedom to evangelize, it also was tempted to get into power politics to its detriment. The fact that Rome was divided into east and west did not bode well for the church as the first major denomination split was east and west.
All in all, this was a very good review of the first one thousand years of the history of the church. It helped me to see where many of the practices found today originated. It also reveals that there has always been some political and cultural encroachments along the way. There is always a struggle between keeping the faith pure and cultural influences.
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