Last week we left off with the close of the New Testament period. Obviously, one of the major questions facing the new Church was who will lead after all the apostles died? Once they are gone, the Church will not be able to call council's at Jerusalem for them to discuss major issues in the ever-expanding Church. Who will have authority in the Church? Who will lead out and continue the work that the apostles had begun? These were all serious issues for the early Church to face. To answer these questions generally, we could refer to the Church Fathers. It is these men who led out in the Church for the next 500 years. Yet, this large group can be broken up into three smaller groups: Apostolic Fathers (90-150), Apologists (150-300), and the Theologians (300-600).1 This morning we will begin by looking at the Apostolic Fathers. In general, we could say that these men, or at least what we know of them from their writings, emphasized devotion to the Lord, holy living, and pastoral ministry. I want to mention three of them specifically and two other writings as well.
II. The Apostolic Fathers and Writings
A. The first Father that I want to mention this morning is Clement of Rome. Clement served as the Elder of Rome from about 30-100 a.d. This is possibly the Clement that Paul refers to in Philippians 4:3. Basically we know of him because of a letter that he wrote to the Church in Corinth. He wrote this letter to deal with some disturbances that were going on in the Church. In this letter, he depends heavily on the Old Testament. Also, he quotes from the letters of Paul, giving us some idea of the circulation of the letters of Paul in the early Church. One of the interesting things we see in this letter is the fact that he argues that the leaders in the Church have all succeeded from the Apostles who succeeded from Christ. With this, we see the beginnings of the idea of Papal succession. However, it would take some years for this idea to develop.
B. Second, I want to mention Ignatius. Ignatius was the Bishop of Antioch in Syria. This city became the leading city of early Christianity following the fall of Jerusalem. Thus, Ignatius' position was important. He was arrested at some point by Roman authorities in Antioch and is taken to Rome. As he traveled from Antioch to Rome, Ignatius visited many cities and many Churches along the way. We know this because later he writes to seven of them (early in the second century). In his letters he encourages the Churches to fight against heresy (possibly Gnosticism). He also encourages the young Churches to labor for unity. He is the first to use the term 'Catholic Church,' referring to the fact that the Church is universal. In his encouragement for unity, Ignatius called for the Churches to submit to their local bishops. A bishop at this time was a leader who oversaw several Churches in a certain region. This office would expand throughout Church History. Again, from his writings we see the beginnings of the Episcopal form of Church government, which will later develop in the Roman Catholic Church. One last thing to mention about Ignatius is that he longed for martyrdom in his letters. Specifically in his letter to the Church at Rome, he asked them not to seek his freedom from the Roman officials. Although it is not known for certain, it seems that Ignatius did die shortly after arriving at Rome.
C. The last person I want to specifically talk about is Polycarp. Polycarp was the Bishop of Smyrna. He also was a disciple of John at Ephesus. He wrote to Philippi around 110 a.d. In this letter we see the early church's dependence on the New Testament writings. What is most known and talked about concerning Polycarp is his martyrdom. In Smyrna many Christians had been persecuted and martyred for their faith. At one point the enraged crowds called for the death of Polycarp. At first, Polycarp hid, but after his second hiding spot had been discovered he simply waited for the authorities to come and capture him. I quote at length from Shelley writing of Polycarp's trial: The authorities brought the highly respected pator into the crowded arena, prepared to shove him to the lions-but only reluctantly. They much preferred a denial of the charge against him. He was a Christian. \"Simply swear by Caesar,\" the governor pled. \"I am a Christian,\" said Polycarp. \"If you want to know what that is, set a day and listen.\" \"Persuade the people,\" answered the governor. Polycarp said, \"I would explain to you but not to them.\" \"Then I'll throw you to the beasts.\" \"Bring on your beasts,\" said Polycarp. \"If you scorn the beasts, I'll have you burned.\" \"You try to frighten me with the fire that burns for an hour, and you forget the fire of hell that never goes out.\" The governor called to the people, \"Polycarp says he is a Christian.\" Then the mob let loose. \"This is the teacher of Asia,\" they shouted, \"the father of the Christians, the destroyer of our gods.\" So, Polycarp, praying that his death would be an acceptable sacrifice, was burned at the stake.2
Shelley goes on to speak of this being a real event. Yet, he also notes that we do not need to be misled into thinking that every martyrdom happened in such a way, as is often depicted. He does go on to write about that seemingly every natural, political, or other major event often resulted in the persecution of Christians. Evidence of this is Nero's persecution in 64 a.d. Polycarp's martyrdom is recorded in a writing entitled 'The Martyrdom of Polycarp.' He was 86 when he was burned at the stake.
D. Two other writings that are important from this period are \"The Shepherd of Hermas\" and \"The Didache.\" \"The Shepherd of Hermas\" is a bizarre work that was written by a former slave. It includes 5 visions and two other sections that stress repentance and holy living. \"The Didache,\" or the teaching of the twelve was written early in the second century. Basically it is an early Church manual. It includes discussions about Baptism, the Lord's supper, and even Church discipline. Both of these works give us insight into the early Church.
III. What can we learn from this period?
A. One thing we can learn from this period in history is the importance of understanding authority in the Church. The issue of authority in the Church is a major reason, if not the major reason why the Reformation took place. The question is simple, Who has authority in the Church? Although it is not clear from their writings exactly what the Apostolic Fathers believed, we can see how the Episcopal tradition developed from their writings. For us, we will see over and again the importance of sola scriptura. We find our authority in the Scriptures alone. Now the issue of Church government could be discussed more, yet, my point is simply to point out how the issue of authority has always been critical in the local Church.
B. I think we can also learn from the faith of the martyrs. This is also something we will see throughout Church History. There are so many who have been willing to give their lives for the faith. Unfortunately, because we live in America where believers are not formally persecuted by the government (although this may soon change), we are often unaware of the fact that believers are being persecuted for their faith all over the world in much the same way that we see in early centuries of the Church. We must be grateful. We must pray. We must be resolved to suffer, even to the point of death, if following the Lord will lead us to such an end. May we indeed imitate the faith of those who have gone before us!
1Following James P. Eckman, Exploring Church History (Wheaton: Crossway Books, 2002), 17ff.
2Bruce L. Shelley, Church History in Plain Language (Dallas: Word Publishing, 1995), 37.