Sunday, 29 November -0001 18:42

Introduction to Church History

Written by Rev. C. Schouls
This is the first in a series of instalments dealing with Church History. Unless we know our past, we do not know who we are. Serious students of church history will soon realize the deficiencies in these columns: there is no attempt to give an in-depth review of the past twenty centuries. They will also recognize the lack of originality in the presentation of this material. In an age where many people know little of their past and in which even the teaching of history has become an option for many in schools, originality and in-depth scholarship are not the items of first importance. It is hoped that these simple accounts will bring to the reader a sense of continuity with the past, of identity in the present and of hope for the future, knowing that the Lord Jesus Christ is the King of the Church, which He Ògathers, defends and preservesÓ (L.D. 21, Heidelberg Catechism)
The Importance of Knowing the History of the Church
The study of history is the study and evaluation of the events of the past: What were those events? What caused them to take place? What results did they produce? What can we, today, learn from them? Matthew 28:18, 1 Corinthians 15:24-28 and Revelation 5 make it clear that Jesus Christ is in control of all history. Romans 8:28 puts a very personal element into all this. Jesus is in control, not only of the events which take place in the Church, but He directs all things for the good of His people. We do, however, make a distinction between ÒsecularÓ and ÒsacredÓ history: the former dealing with the affairs of nations, the latter with the affairs of the church and religion.

1. Because the Lord has done such great things in the past and has so wonderfully preserved the Church, we ought to study this. If we love the Lord we will want to know not only what He has done in the past, but also what we may expect from Him in the future, both for our individual personal lives and for the church as a whole. If we do not study the past, we will ignore some of GodÕs work, we will be poorly equipped to deal with various issues (which are the same from age to age) and we will be expending energy needlessly.

2. The Church is the possession of the Lord Jesus, Òthe Bride bought with His blood.Ó We are born as members of the Church and, as we mature, we are called to personal faith in this same Lord. If we are to have a Òpersonal relationshipÓ to Jesus, we ought to know how valuable this Church is to Him and how He has protected her in the past.

3. Although we distinguish Òsecular" from ÒsacredÓ history, the two are constantly intertwined and we cannot study the one without having some knowledge of the other. It will greatly improve your understanding of church history if you have some notion of what was going on in the world at the time of which we speak.

4. As the church developed primarily in Europe, the study of its history is interwoven with the development of the European nation states. Look for the recurring theme of the struggle between Kings and Popes (Òstate and churchÓ, Òpolitics and religionÓ).

The Acts of the Apostles describes the establishment of the Church in its New Testament form. It ends with Paul, a prisoner in Rome, awaiting the outcome of his appeal to Caesar. Tradition has it that Paul was beheaded under Emperor Nero. The time covered by this book is approximately from 30 to 66 AD (Anno Domini = the Year of our Lord).

During this time, the main problems for the young churches came from the Jewish people who were either total unbelievers in Jesus the Messiah or else tried to join elements of both Christian thought and Old Testament-based Jewish beliefs together. Roman officials (remember, Rome ruled the lands around the Mediterranean Sea) were usually tolerant. A number of them came to true faith, among whom Cornelius is an early and outstanding example (Acts 10, 11). Generally, the Romans considered Christians as law-abiding citizens and the result is that during the time the New Testament epistles were written, there was no persecution from the side of Rome. This did not last long!

Nero was one of the worst emperors Rome ever had, especially from the point of view of the Church. His 14-year rule (54-68) brought about a drastic change for the worse. He was a Òmonster of wickedness, one of the vilest men ever to occupy a throne.Ó He considered himself to be a master builder and a musician. In a disastrous 6-day fire, most of Rome was destroyed. It was rumoured he had set the fire. By doing this he gained several goals: it cleared out all the old buildings and gave him an opportunity to rebuild the city according to his plans; he blamed the Christians for this fire; as a result, fierce persecution broke out throughout the empire and the hatred against him was deflected to the Christians; a potential threat against his rule (the Christians, who swore allegiance to that ÒforeignÓ king, Jesus) was removed. It was during this time that many believers in Rome took refuge in the Òcatacombs.Ó The Roman historian Tacitus wrote:

Nero punished with the utmost refinement of cruelty a class hated
for their abomination who are commonly called Christians.
Christus, from whom their name is derived, was executed at the
hands of Pontius Pilate in the reign of Tiberius. In Rome an
immense multitude was convicted, not so much on the charge of
arson, as because of their hatred of the human race. Besides
being put to death they were made to serve as objects of
amusement: they were clad in the hides of beasts and torn to
pieces by dogs; others were crucified; others set on fire to
serve to illuminate the night when daylight failed.

The charges against the believers were obviously false. Persecution lasted for many years. We have an exchange of letters, from 112, between a governor called Pliny the Younger and his emperor Trajan. Pliny was governor of Bithynia (see Acts 16:7; 1 Peter 1:1). He wrote:

This is the course I have adopted. I ask them if they are
Christians. If they admit it, I repeat the question a second and
a third time, threatening capital punishment. If they insist, I
sentence them to death, for their inflexible obstinacy should
certainly be punished. Christians who are Roman citizens I
reserved to be sent to Rome. I discharged those who were willing
to curse Christ, a thing, which it is said, genuine Christians
cannot be persuaded to do.

TrajanÕs reply was, in fact, ÒDonÕt go out of your way looking for them.Ó

Persecution persisted through the second century, although official records are scarce. We do know that despite this pressure, the church grew. Several important Christian books, defending the faith, were written at this time. One of the most important was by Justin Martyr, born around 100 AD. The last wave of persecution started up again in 303 under Diocletian and was continued by Galerius until his death in 311.

Reasons for Persecuting the Christians:
Although it may be possible to adduce other reasons, the primary excuses for persecuting the Christians were these five:

1. Worship of ÒgodsÓ not recognized by the Empire;
2. Professed allegiance to the kingdom of Christ;
3. Refusal to partake in certain social/ political affairs--were they opposed to the state?
4. Christians posed a threat to the economic well-being of sellers of idols, a major business (See Acts 19);
5. Christians were blamed for any disaster or disorder in society; such proved that the ÒgodsÓ were angry for having forsaken the ways of the fathers!

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