Class, Week 5: When Did the Early Church Become the Catholic Church?

Growing up in a tradition that sought to emulate the so-called “New Testament church,” I never thought to ask a couple of questions that seem relevant:

  1. What did the New Testament church actually practice?
  2. When did the New Testament church stop being the New Testament church?

These questions seem really basic, but the answers are quite complicated. The answers are assumed to be:

  1. What the New Testament says they practiced
  2. When it stopped doing what the New Testament described

Here’s the problem with both of those answers: The New Testament itself was written over a period of 50-60 years, during which time practices in the churches changed. Further, the writers of the New Testament do not seem all that concerned with providing a step-by-step process for how they did church; not only that, what little they do describe occurred decades before the New Testament writers describe it. The author of Acts, for example, did not write before 70 C.E., which was already 30-40 years after Pentecost inaugurates the church.

But there are documents that describe the practices of the early church. Among them are The Didache, which means “Two Paths” and claimed to be the “teachings of the 12 apostles.” It was considered an inspired work useful for the church – though not necessarily canonical, and indeed it ultimately failed to make the canonical cut – and it was written at the same time as many of the New Testament texts.

In chapter 7, the text turns from general exhortation to specific commands about how to do church.

But concerning baptism, thus baptize ye: having first recited all these precepts, baptize in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, in running water;  but if thou hast not running water, baptize in some other water, and if thou canst not baptize in cold, in warm water;  but if thou hast neither, pour water three times on the head, in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. But before the baptism, let him who baptizeth and him who is baptized fast previously, and any others who may be able. And thou shalt command him who is baptized to fast one or two days before.

Today’s churches, even the New Testament restorationist types, do not go out of their way to find cold, running water. On the other extreme, I think they would object to any baptism other than immersion, even though the church clearly made allowances for it.

Other documents, such as Justin Martyr’s First Apology are written just a few decades after the final books of the New Testament, and they reference a single “president” over the worship service, as well as a full meal taken together as a congregation, with the leftover food distributed to the community’s poor. Not many churches, restorationist or not, do that today.

Likewise, the later New Testament works clearly refer to a hierarchical church organization that includes bishops, yet Protestants generally object to such a word because it is now so laden with Catholic baggage.

There are also more politically explosive topics, such as women in leadership and the more charismatic gifts of the Holy Spirit. The evidence is strong that the New Testament church allowed, even encouraged, both, but significant efforts have been largely successful in obscuring or dismissing this in favor of a male-dominated, more sedate worship experience today.

To the second question – when did the New Testament church worthy of emulation become the Catholic Church worthy of … something else? – the answer is inherently unclear. If it’s acceptable to go out 70 years from the Pentecost, why not 100? 150? 300? In fact, the most natural break is about 300 years out, when Constantine converted to Christianity and turned the church from an often-persecuted minority into a state-sanctioned power.

But by then, the church was already meeting in synods and councils, formulating creeds and statements of belief, creating a martyr cult and glorifying the virtues of virginity and asceticism. So we could go earlier. Except there is no moment at which the church simply stopped doing what it used to do. As I mentioned, bishops were in use by 100 C.E., a single “president” ran the worship services by 150. Around 180, Irenaeus was appealing to the traceable succession of bishops from the apostles themselves to defend orthodox Christianity against Gnosticism. By 250 (Apostolic Tradition by Hippolytus), those wishing to convert to Christianity were required to undergo a three-year process of instruction and self-denial before baptism (though exceptions were made for exceptional catechumens and martyrs). And, speaking of baptism, in all cases, it – not a simple confession of faith – was considered entrance into the body of Christ.

The answer to both questions, then, is essentially unanswerable: We don’t know fully how specifically the earliest Christians worshipped. What little we do know indicates it was substantially influenced by their Jewish background; Justin’s descriptions mirror the order of worship in the synagogues of the era.

For further reading, I recommend this article by Ben Witherington, which includes findings and photos from the excavation of a third-century house church, which included a baptistry that could only have been used for baptisms via sprinkling (photo above). As Witherington argues:

Had there been a grand departure from NT practice already in the pre-Constantinian era?  Was there a big difference already in the 2nd and 3rd centuries, when it comes to worship and baptism and the like?

This is unlikely on several grounds.  Firstly,  Christianity was still an illicit religion when the church in Dura was built.  This is why it is not a stand alone structure, but rather within a wealthy person’s house.  Secondly, the obvious similarities in structure and murals and ablution pool in both the synagogue and the church here in Dura show that the church was still modeling itself to a significant degree on synagogue practice.

There’s so much we don’t, cannot and probably will never know about how the early church worshipped, which means a dose of humility would be helpful. The problem is when one’s entire system of worship claims to restore the “biblical standards” for church, there’s not a whole lot of room for that. Instead, we end up fighting about 2,000-year-old practices formed in a culture we can never fully understand and wondering why the church is no longer attractive to those outside our walls.

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