A BRIEF HISTORY OF THE EARLY CHURCH

By Tim Lambert

The Foundation of the Church

According to the Bible the Church began on the day of Pentecost when the Holy Spirit descended upon 12 of the followers of Jesus and they began speaking in different languages. A man named Peter preached a sermon and about 3,000 people were saved that day. The Church grew rapidly but they were persecuted by the Jewish authorities. But the persecution had the opposite effect of that intended. Most of the Christians fled from Jerusalem but they took the new religion everywhere they went. It simply spread further.

Chief among those persecuting followers of the new religion was a man named Saul of Tarsus. However he underwent a dramatic conversion and changed his name to Paul.

At first all the followers of the new religion were Jews but later Gentiles were accepted as converts. About 50 AD the Council of Jerusalem decided that Gentile converts did not have to keep the old Jewish laws.

The Roman Empire had excellent communications which helped the new religion spread rapidly. The empire was centered on the Mediterranean sea and the Romans are famous for their road building skills. The leading light in spreading Christianity was Paul. He went on a series of journeys preaching the new religion. About 46-48 AD Paul and a man named Barnabas sailed to Cyprus and what is now Turkey. About 48-51 AD Paul and a man named Silas traveled to Turkey and Greece. Then in 53-57 AD Paul made a third journey to Turkey and Greece. About 58 AD Paul was arrested and spent two years in prison. Paul appealed to Caesar. (As a Roman citizen he had that right). He was sent to Rome although on the way he was shipwrecked at Malta. Its believed Paul was executed about 67 AD.

The new religion spread amazingly fast. By 64 AD there were Christians in Rome. However in that year the city was severely damaged by a fire. Some people said that Emperor Nero started it. To deflect blame from himself Nero blamed Christians and he persecuted them. Domitian was emperor in the years 81-96 AD Domitian. He unleashed a wave of persecution against Christians. But the persecution did nothing to stop the growth of the Church. By the mid 2nd century there were Christians in Gaul (modern day France). By the late 2nd century there is evidence of Christianity in Britain, on the edge of the Roman world.

Another great wave of persecution was unleashed by the Emperor Decius (249-251). Finally in 303 the Emperor Diocletian tried but failed to root out Christianity. St Alban the first known British martyr was executed in 304. However the Church continued to grow.

The early Christians met in each others houses. But by the 3rd century some were meeting in purpose built buildings. The early churches were lead by teams of men but in the 2nd century it gradually changed to a system where one man, the bishop was preeminent assisted by a group of men called presbyters and deacons. Gradually the church in Rome came to have a special role.

Meanwhile the church produced some great writers. Among them were 125-202 Iranaeus Bishop of Lyons (125-202), Justin Martyr (100-165) and Tertullian (c. 160-220).

The First Christian Emperor

The situation changed in 312 when the Emperor Constantine professed Christianity. The persecution of the Church ended. Constantine died in 337. The last Pagan emperor of the Roman Empire was Julian known as Julian the Apostate (361-363). However his attempt to revive Paganism failed. In 380 Christianity became the official religion of the Roman Empire.

Meanwhile Christians believe in the Trinity (the doctrine that God is one being but three persons, Father, Son and Holy Spirit). but the exact nature of the Trinity has caused many disputes. About 318 a man named Arius began teaching that God the Son (Jesus) has not always existed. He was created by God the Father and is inferior to him. His teaching quickly gained supporters but Constantine called a council of bishops at Nicea (now the city of Iznik in Turkey) which rejected the teachings of Arius. However his teachings still had many supporters in the Roman Empire and disputes over the nature of the Trinity continued.

Meanwhile in the late 4th century the Roman Empire split into two halves, East and West. The Western Empire gradually declined. The split was mirrored by the Church. The Western Church based in Rome and the Eastern Church based in Constantinople drifted apart. Then in the 5th peoples from Northern and Eastern Europe conquered parts of the Western Roman Empire. The last emperor in the west was deposed in 476 and the empire came to an end. However the Eastern part of the Roman Empire continued to flourish.

Famous Christian Women

A Timeline of the Bible

A history of Christianity in England

A brief biography of John Wesley

A brief biography of Julian of Norwich

A brief biography of Margery Kempe

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