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The Early Church: The Danger Within

By September 1, 2017April 23rd, 2022Theology7 min read

Christians often say that whenever a great work of God or a move of the Holy Spirit is taking place, there are sure to be rampant attacks from the devil. This was certainly the case with the Early Church! As we have seen, the spread of the Gospel and the growth of the Church led to an array of external attacks, most notably in the form of false doctrine and physical persecution. However, sometimes the most unexpected and insidious threats are those from within….

It all happened gradually.

The Apostles were naturally the leaders of the Church after Pentecost, and were involved in the spread of the Gospel throughout the Roman Empire and beyond. The Apostle Paul had planted numerous churches around the Mediterranean, appointing overseers (known as elders or bishops) to lead these congregations in conjunction with deacons. After Paul’s time, the churches were to be led by groups of bishops and deacons chosen by the congregation, and not by a single figure; what’s more, it was clear from the teachings of the Apostles that although these men might be given oversight of the churches, they were to serve and care for the believers as equal members of the body of Christ (Acts 20:28, NKJV;1 Peter 5:2-3, NKJV).
However, when external threats and issues began to arise, a shift took place in church leadership. As these concerns and needs emerged in the young Christian Church, the bishops stepped up to meet those needs. At this time, there were at least THREE roles that the bishops assumed in the Church:

MANAGER—As churches grew and spread, the bishops often became responsible for managing the distribution and use of church resources. At times, one man would take the lead in this activity. This is seen in a description of an early church service by the second century apologist Justin Martyr: “Those who have means and are willing, each according to his own choice, gives what he wills, and what is collected is deposited with the president (bishop). He provides for the orphans and widows, those who are in need on account of sickness or some other cause, those who are in bonds, strangers who are sojourning, and in a word he becomes the protector of all in need.”¹
PROTECTOR—Not only did the bishops protect those in need, but in times of persecution, the congregation often looked to their bishops for guidance, strength, comfort and inspiration. Such was the case with Fabian, the Bishop of Rome in the mid-third century. When the Emperor Decius instigated his persecution of the Christians, he strategically began by murdering church leaders in an attempt to dissuade others from their faith. Yet Fabian’s brave confession of Christ to the point of death did just the opposite, greatly inspiring and strengthening the Roman believers to stand firm in their faith. Like Fabian, many bishops were a profound support for their flocks in the midst of violent persecution.
DEFENDER—The bishops played a crucial role in defending the faith against heresies. The great church councils of the first few centuries of the Church consisted of bishops who preserved and defended biblical theology from a host of heretical errors and attacks. These men were responsible for agreeing upon the biblical canon of Scripture and formulating creeds that articulated the essential tenets of the Christian faith.

Clearly, the bishops were beginning to play a more prominent role in the leadership of the Early Church; this in itself may not have been problematic, but in the midst of defending the faith against heresy, a dangerous precedent was set.

The Gnostics, you may recall, claimed to have authority from secret teachers appointed by the Apostles. To defend against this unfounded claim, church leaders asserted something known as the “Apostolic Succession,” the argument that the Apostles had publicly appointed bishops to lead the churches in their place, and this practice of appointment led to the bishops now in place. The Early Church father Clement explained, “Our Apostles knew, through our Lord Jesus Christ, that there would be dissensions over the title of bishop. In their full knowledge of this, therefore, they proceeded to appoint the ministers I spoke of, and they went on to add an instruction that if these should fall asleep, other accredited persons might succeed them in their office.”²

Although the intent of their assertion was in defense against heresy, the churches began to unwittingly rely on and refer to their bishops more and more in such matters.

By the second century, it seemed expedient to appoint a single bishop to lead each church for the sake of clarity and unity in dealing with false teachers; each bishop would essentially become a rallying point in the battle against heresy. As William Bennett points out, “Many came to believe that a single bishop more clearly represented the unity of the church, could be an unencumbered source of authority, and also served as an unmistakable public figurehead.”³

This may have seemed to be a helpful decision, but it opened the door for an insidious internal threat within the Church: Pride.

By the second century, Ignatius declared, “Pay attention to the Bishop and board of elders and deacons. Do nothing without the Bishop. You must follow the Bishop as Jesus Christ followed the Father.”4 With such a mentality in place, it was one small step for the bishops to be given authority not merely over material needs in the congregation, but spiritual needs as well; in fact, by the third century, it was taught that the bishops had power to forgive sins. A dangerous, unbiblical doctrine to say the least!

In retrospect, the consequences of having this level of material and spiritual authority concentrated upon individual men are only too obvious. Having shifted from joint leadership of bishops and deacons to an emphasis on the bishops, and then shifting again to focus all authority on one bishop alone, meant that it would only be a matter of time before pride crept in and tempted weak men to exploit that authority in a quest for power. No wonder Paul warned that a bishop should take heed “…Lest being puffed up with pride he fall into the same condemnation as the devil” (1 Timothy 3:6, NKJV). External threats to the Early Church like persecution and heresy would come and go, but the internal threats of pride, power and position had longevity with alarming ramifications, as we shall see in a future article.

What a warning for us today! We too face many external threats and dangers as the body of Christ; yet none is a greater, more insidious and enduring threat than the pride that exploits the weakest and worst of man’s nature. Paul rightly warned the Ephesian church to “give no opportunity to the devil” (Ephesians 4:27, ESV). May we as the Church today remain vigilant against the internal threats of pride, power and position, lest we too give the devil an opportunity!

¹ Mark Galli and Ted Olsen, Christians Everyone Should Know, 131
² Clement of Rome, Letter to the Corinthians
William Bennett, Tried by Fire: The Story of Christianity’s First Thousand Years
Ignatius, Epistle to the Smyrnaeans

Jasmine Alnutt is from Washington State and graduated from Westmont College in Santa Barbara, CA.