They devoted themselves to the teaching of the apostles and to the communal life, to the breaking of the bread and to the prayers. ~ Acts 2:42
Many “Bible Alone” Christians will say that the Church of the Bible looks nothing like the Catholic Church. If that were true, then we would expect to find evidence of the first few hundred years of Christianity to support this claim. However, what we do find is evidence to show that the Early Church was indeed Catholic in every way! Many Protestants claim that the Church of the first three centuries was a “pure” Church and base that on a modern reading of Acts 2:42, ignoring that writings of the earliest Christians. They will also claim that it was only after the legalization of Christianity by Roman Emperor Constantine (313 AD) did the Church become “Catholic” and corrupt. However, the doctrines of Post-Constantine Catholicism are the same doctrines that were held by Christians for the preceding three centuries. In fact, the evidence below clearly shows that the beliefs of the Early Church are the same as those of the Catholic Church today in the 3rd millennium.
Again, The Early Church Fathers are so important because: 1) their testimonies prove that the Early Church was Catholic; 2) the councils of Trent and Vatican I declared that no-one may interpret Scripture in a manner contrary to the unanimous consent of the Fathers; 3) all the Fathers were convinced that the original texts of the Bible were absolutely immune from all error. IF, Catholic doctrine had changed “many times” from that of the earliest writings, then the record should reflect this. However, the record shows that the writings of the Early Church Fathers are consistent with the teachings of the modern Catholic Church. Nothing has changed! This is why the councils of Trent and Vatican I attest that the writings of the Early Church are to be regarded as authoritative in respect to the interpretation of scripture. Any interpretation of scripture cannot be in conflict of the testament of the unanimous teachings of Early Church on doctrine. Again, let me clarify…doctrines are those teachings from scripture that deal with items of Faith and Morals, not practices, customs and disciplines which so many anti-Catholics try to say are doctrines. Example, Baptism by sprinkling vs immersion, this is a practice.
The early Church was the Catholic Church. It taught infallibly, gave us the New Testament and was made up of three ranks of clergy, bishop, priest and deacon. The idea of “Scripture Alone” didn’t exist nor could it have as the printing press would not be invented for more than a thousand years. The earliest Christians didn’t even have a New Testament yet. It was a NEW Church. They had to rely upon verbal teaching that was passed down from the Apostles as Paul says in 2 Thessalonians 2:15.
Stand firm, then, brothers, and keep the traditions that we taught you, whether by word of mouth or by letter. (2 Thessalonians 2:15)
Before there was a Bible, there was a Church…
To make sure that the apostolic tradition would be passed down after the deaths of the apostles, Paul also told Timothy, “What you have heard from me before many witnesses entrust to faithful men who will be able to teach others also“ (2 Tim. 2:2). In other words, he was telling Timothy that it was necessary to keep the traditions and teachings alive. Yes, he was writing letters, but every place a church had been established did not instantly get a copy of those letters. It would take many, many years before they all would be compiled into what we now know as the New Testament. No written Bibles as we know them today existed. This is important to understand.
In the first four centuries of the Church many books, such as the seven letters of Ignatius, the Letter of Clement [the fourth pope] to the Corinthians, the Didache, and The Shepherd were revered by many Christians as inspired but were later shown to be non-inspired. Keep in mind, non-inspired does not imply not important or not authoritative, it just means that they did not see that those writings to be on level with the inspired writings of the Apostles.
The Bible as we know it today didn’t come into being until the Councils of Hippo and Carthage. That is when the Catholic Church defined which books made it into the New Testament and which didn’t. There were many letters and writings that were floating around and they saw a need to settle which were to be considered as inspired, which were important but not inspired, and which were even heretical. The council fathers studied many documents, including, of course, the writings of the Apostles themselves, but it was not until these councils that the Church officially settled the issue of what should be included in the Canon of Scripture.
What did the Early Church look like?
That being said, what did the early Church really look like? Let’s look at the writings of the Early Church Fathers to see the Church that they knew. I bet all the Catholic Christians reading this will recognize their Church, and I’m guessing that most Protestants will not see theirs. But, let’s find out.
In the year A.D 80, we see Saint Clement of Rome, the fourth in line of succession from Peter, who was also a disciple of Peter and Paul, sending a letter to Corinth. Exhorting them to get it together or they would have severe repercussions. Those Corinthians had been causing the Church fits since Saint Paul. Now why was a bishop in Rome telling the Church in Corinth what to do? Because he had authority to do so and that authority was recognized. He is recognized as the fourth Bishop of Rome, the fourth Pope!
Clement of Rome
If anyone disobey the things which have been said by Him through us, let them know that they will involve themselves in transgression and in no small danger. We, however, shall be innocent of this sin, and will pray with earnest entreaty and supplication that the Creator of all may keep unharmed the number of His elect, which have been counted up in the whole world, through His beloved child Jesus Christ, through whom He has called us from darkness to light, and from ignorance to the full knowledge of the glory of His name.(Letter to the Corinthians 28a [A.D. 80]). –> Read online in its entirety here
We can see by the year A.D. 110, in the writings of Saint Ignatius of Antioch, a disciple of Saint John, yes “that” John, that the Church had bishops that had authority. That they were to obey the clergy and deacons, just as they would the apostles. They were also supposed to regard the bishop as a “type” of the Father. (…hmmm, sound familiar?) Also note that the Eucharist was only valid if the bishop or by a person authorized by the bishop were to celebrate it. They had a council and a college of apostles and without these it could not be called a church. Why? Because Jesus provided an authoritative teaching body in the Church to maintain the Truth, guided by the Holy Spirit. Ignatius even calls the Church, the Catholic Church! Sounds like what we refer to today as the Magisterium of the Catholic Church. Read for yourself.
Ignatius of Antioch
Follow your bishop, every one of you, as obediently as Jesus Christ followed the Father. Obey your clergy too as you would the apostles; give your deacons the same reverence that you would to a command of God. Make sure that no step affecting the Church is ever taken by anyone without the bishop’s sanction. The sole Eucharist you should consider valid is one that is celebrated by the bishop himself, or by some person authorized by him. Where the bishop is to be seen, there let all his people be; just as, wherever Jesus Christ is present, there is the Catholic Church (Letter to the Smyrneans 8:2 [A.D. 110]). –> Read online in its entirety here
For, since you are subject to the bishop as to Jesus Christ, you appear to me to live not after the manner of men, but according to Jesus Christ, who died for us, in order, by believing in His death, you may escape from death. It is therefore necessary that, as you indeed do, so without the bishop you should do nothing, but should also be subject to the presbytery 1, as to the apostle of Jesus Christ, who is our hope, in whom, if we live, we shall [at last] be found. It is fitting also that the deacons, as being [the ministers] of the mysteries 2 of Jesus Christ, should in every respect be pleasing to all. For they are not ministers of meat and drink, but servants of the Church of God. They are bound, therefore, to avoid all grounds of accusation [against them], as they would do fire.
Be you subject to the bishop as to the Lord, for “he watches for your souls, as one that shall give account to God.” (Heb 13:17) Wherefore also, you appear to me to live not after the manner of men, but according to Jesus Christ, who died for us, in order that, by believing in His death, you may by baptism be made partakers of His resurrection. It is therefore necessary, whatsoever things you do, to do nothing without the bishop. And be you subject also to the presbytery, as to the apostles of Jesus Christ, who is our hope, in whom, if we live, we shall be found in Him. It behooves you also, in every way, to please the deacons, who are [ministers] of the mysteries of Christ Jesus; for they are not ministers of meat and drink, but servants of the Church of God. They are bound, therefore, to avoid all grounds of accusation [against them], as they would a burning fire. Let them, then, prove themselves to be such. (Letter to the Trallians 2:1-2 [A. D. 110]). –> Read online in its entirety here
1- presbytery translates in English as priest, ministers.
2- Mysteries of Christ, also translated as Sacraments
In like manner let everyone respect the deacons as they would respect Jesus Christ, and just as they respect the bishop as a type of the Father, and the presbyters as the council of God and college of the apostles. Without these, it cannot be called a Church. I am confident that you accept this, for I have received the exemplar of your love and have it with me in the person of your bishop. His very demeanor is a great lesson and his meekness is his strength. I believe that even the godless do respect him (Letter to the Trallians 3:1-2 [A. D. 110]). –> Read online in its entirety here
The early church was NOT an unorganized band of Christian followers, but a very organized group, even though they were most of the time practicing their faith “underground” due to persecution. There were no factions or splinter groups that were allowed to stay in operation, but as Ignatius points out, if you were not in union with and under the authority of the bishops, then you were not following the Church that Jesus Christ established.
In the Martyrdom of Saint Polycarp, also a disciple of John the Apostle, written around A.D. 160 we can see that the Church at the time was Catholic and shows that the church was seen as a unified Church.
The Martyrdom of Polycarp
When finally he concluded his prayer, after remembering all who had at any time come his way – small folk and great folk, distinguished and undistinguished, and the whole Catholic Church throughout the world – the time for departure came. So they placed him on an ass, and brought him into the city on a great Sabbath (The Martyrdom of Polycarp 8 [A.D. 160]). –> Read online in its entirety here
We also see in the writings of Saint Irenaeus in A.D. 189 that he refers to a unified Church. Of important note, this writing comes from his Letter Against Heresies. He is pointing out in the letter that any who teach a gospel outside of the unity of the Catholic Church are teaching heresy.
The Catholic Church possesses one and the same faith throughout the whole world, as we have already said (Against Heresies 1:10 [A.D. 189]). –> Read online in its entirety here
Since therefore we have such proofs, it is not necessary to seek the truth among others which it is easy to obtain from the Church; since the apostles, like a rich man [depositing his money] in a bank, lodged in her hands most copiously all things pertaining to the truth: so that every man, whosoever will, can draw from her the water of life. For she is the entrance to life; all others are thieves and robbers. On this account we are bound to avoid them, but to make choice of the things pertaining to the Church with the utmost diligence, and to lay hold of the tradition of the truth. For how stands the case? Suppose there should arise a dispute relative to some important question among us. Should we not have recourse to the most ancient churches with which the apostles held constant intercourse, and learn from them what is certain and clear in regard to the present question? For how should it be if the apostles themselves had not left us writings? Would it not be necessary [in that case] to follow the course of the tradition which they handed down to those to whom they did commit the church? (ibid. 3:4). –> Read online in its entirety here
Did he say that we are to lay hold of the tradition of the truth? Yes, he did. And how did he say we should solve disputes and questions about what we should believe? We should have recourse to the ancient churches, which at this point in history were only around 200 years old. Still, that is a long time. Yet, here we are 2000 years later, and yet those outside of the Catholic Church, do not follow his advice.
So now we move on to Tertullian. He shows here in his writing “The Prescription Against Heretics” around A.D. 200 that the Church is referred to as the Catholic Church. It’s been 100 years since Ignatius of Antioch first recorded the Church being called Catholic. Too bad Tertullian didn’t heed his own advice when he later succumbed to the heresy of Montanism, a heresy that claimed the revelation of Truth was continuing past the Apostolic age.
Where was Marcion then, that shipmaster of Pontus, the zealous student of Stoicism? Where was Valentinus then, the disciple of Platonism? For it is evident that those men lived not so long ago – in the reign of Antoninus for the most part – and that they at first were believers in the doctrine of the Catholic Church, in the church of Rome under the episcopate of the blessed Eleutherus, until on account of their ever restless curiosity, with which they even infected the brethren, they were more than once expelled (The Prescription Against Heretics 22,30 [A.D.200]) –> Read online in its entirety here
Saint Clement of Alexandria, near the end of the second century and the beginning of the third talks about how the Church has a hierarchy of bishops, priest and deacons. Again, this is before the claimed corruption of the Church by Constantine. Just sayin’.
Clement of Alexandria
A multitude of other pieces of advice to particular persons is written in the holy books: some for presbyters, some for bishops and deacons; and others for widows, of whom we shall have opportunity to speak elsewhere (The Instructor of Children 3:12:97:2 [A.D. 191]). –> Read online in its entirety here
Even here in the Church the gradations of bishops, presbyters, and deacons happen to be imitations, in my opinion, of the angelic glory and of that arrangement which, the Scriptures say, awaits those who have followed in the footsteps of the apostles and who have lived in complete righteousness according to the gospel (Stromateis 6:13:107:2 [post-A.D. 202]). –> Read online in its entirety here
In the following, Saint Hippolytus discusses how the bishop is to ordain priests and deacons by the laying on of hands, and how only bishops have the authority to do so. Again, this is 100 years before Constantine ever became Emperor. This is important to remember as this is exactly as the bishops today ordain priest. I have been to a couple of ordinations and yep, it’s the same.
When a deacon is to be ordained, he is chosen after the fashion of those things said above, the bishop alone in like manner imposing his hands upon him as we have prescribed. In the ordaining of a deacon, this is the reason why the bishop alone is to impose his hands upon him: He is not ordained to the priesthood, but to serve the bishop and to fulfill the bishop’s command. He has no part in the council of the clergy, but is to attend to his own duties and is to acquaint the bishop with such matters as are needful. . . . On a presbyter [priest], however, let the presbyters impose their hands because of the common and like Spirit of the clergy. Even so, the presbyter has only the power to receive [the Spirit], and not the power to give [the Spirit]. That is why a presbyter does not ordain the clergy; for at the ordaining of a presbyter, he but seals while the bishop ordains. (Apostolic Tradition 9 [ca. A.D. 215]). –> Read online in its entirety here
Last but not least, we arrive at Saint Cyprian of Carthage who is writing on the unity of the Church in the year A.D. 251. You can also see that he is referring to Matthew 16:18-19 speaking of how the Church will be protected by the Holy Spirit from ever being overcome by separations and divisions and from teaching error. Notice, that even though the Church has experienced separations and divisions through the Protestant revolt and the Schisms that split the East from the West, the One Catholic Church is still standing and is without any doubt the greatest pillar of Truth in the world.
Cyprian of Carthage
The spouse of Christ cannot be defiled; she is uncorrupted and chaste. She knows one home . . . Does anyone believe that this unity which comes from divine strength, which is closely connected with the divine sacraments, can be broken asunder in the Church and be separated by the divisions of colliding wills? He who does not hold this unity, does not hold the law of God, does not hold the faith of the Father and the Son, does not hold life and salvation (On the Unity of the Catholic Church 6 [A.D. 251]). –> Read online in its entirety here
Peter speaks there, on whom the Church was to be built, teaching and showing in the name of the Church, that although a rebellious and arrogant multitude of those who will not hear or obey may depart, yet the Church does not depart from Christ; and they are the Church who are a people united to the priest, and the flock which adheres to its pastor. Whence you ought to know that the bishop is in the Church, and the Church in the bishop; and if anyone be not with the bishop, that he is not in the Church, and that those flatter themselves in vain who creep in, not having peace with God’s priests, and think that they communicate secretly with some; while the Church which is Catholic and one, is not cut nor divided, but is indeed connected and bound together by the cement of priests who cohere with one another (Letters 66 [A.D. 253]). –> Read online in its entirety here
This is by no means an exhaustive list of the pre-Constantine writings that show that the Church was One, Holy and Apostolic, but if gives a good overview of what the Early Church Fathers saw the Church of their time appeared, and it looks just like the Church today. Not the buildings, but the unity, the hierarchy, and the authority. It is only in a Church like this that the following scripture passage has any validity and make any sense.
15 “If your brother sins [against you], go and tell him his fault between you and him alone. If he listens to you, you have won over your brother. 16 If he does not listen, take one or two others along with you, so that ‘every fact may be established on the testimony of two or three witnesses.’ 17 If he refuses to listen to them, tell the church. If he refuses to listen even to the church, then treat him as you would a Gentile or a tax collector. 18 Amen, I say to you, whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven. – Matthew 18:15-18
If the Church was not unified, which Church would I take my brother to if he won’t listen to me concerning his sin? The Baptist? The Episcopal? The Presbyterian? The Reformed Calvinist? The non-denominational church down the street? This passage only makes sense when you have one unified church as the true protector of God’s truth on earth, and is supported when you read the quotes from the earliest Christian writers. As Paul attest, the Church is the protector of Truth, without a doubt!
But if I should be delayed, you should know how to behave in the household of God, which is the church of the living God, the pillar and foundation of truth. – 1 Timothy 3:15
Whew! That was a lot of work. Stay tuned for more on the Early Church Fathers… we have a lot of ground to cover!