Persecution and heresy left indelible marks on the church. Both problems produced defectors. Men and women won by diligent preaching returned to worldly societies or fell away into false doctrine with apparent ease. How did the church face these twin problems?

On this page, I propose to discuss reactions to these external problems. As the church faced these problems, it began to change. By the end of the second century, the church is far more formal and far more organized than at the beginning. You can see this in three specific developments.

I. The development of the clergy.

The clergy develops first. Each Christian was no longer a priest. The development of the clergy system meant the beginning of classes among believers. At that, the changes do not occur overnight and they do not happen without objection.

A. We first see a change in the office of bishop. As we noted, during the first century the "office" of elder and bishop were synonymous. As the second century begins new ideas about the bishop surface. Ignatius of Antioch (30-107) demonstrated this best.

We assign an arbitrary date for Ignatius's birth. Ignatius's lifetime certainly overlaps the apostolic period. The early church usually selected older mature men for leadership roles. Therefore, since Ignatius hailed from Antioch, he might have known the Apostle Paul.

We know little about Ignatius except that Rome arrested him as the bishop of Antioch during Trajan's reign. Rome marched him off to the Eternal City where he died a martyr's death. Information about him comes from seven letters written during his trip to Rome. He sent letters to Ephesus, Magnesia, Tralles, Rome, Smyrna, Philadelphia and to Polycarp. The letters reveal a man who looked forward to the "privilege" of dying for Christ.

His letters reflect two concerns. Heresy caused dissension in the churches. To counter false doctrine and dissension, each church needed a visible focus for unity. For Ignatius, the bishop's office offered that force.

By A.D. 107, some congregations already had a single bishop. Antioch was one of those churches. Polycarp was also the bishop of Smyrna. These bishops received no pay and remained in one location for life. Each assembly selected them to that position. Ignatius refers to the elders and to the bishop indicating a clear distinction in position. Evidently the bishop preserved a congregation's order and unity. He suggests that bishops represent God as an authority figure, so there must be one bishop. He stresses this the most in his letter to Smyrna. At the time Smyrna faced division. He encouraged unity in the bishop and he argues that without the bishop there could be no legitimate baptism or observance of the Lord's Supper.

Frankly, a historical problem confronts us here. Obviously Ignatius's pattern does not represent Pauline teaching. Why? How could a man following Paul and acquainted with him teach such an obviously different organizational structure? No one has a good answer. You won't find monarchical bishops in every church at this point and, significantly, Rome is an exception. Rome does not have a single bishop until after A.D. 135. In his letter to Rome, Ignatius avoided using the term bishop in the singular. Nonetheless, Roman Catholicism traces the line of bishops to Peter. Perhaps several of these early bishops were nothing more than "presiders." It is also likely the "bishop" occupied a position roughly corresponding to the contemporary preacher. The concept of monarchical bishop spread throughout the Empire by A.D. 200.

B. There was a corresponding change in the concept of the eldership. The elders found themselves with a reduced role. Ultimately, the bishop and the presbyters (elders) live together in a group known as the bishop's family. These leaders concentrated in the cities. As churches grew they established satellite congregations. On the Lord's Day, the downtown church's bishop consecrated the emblems and the presbyters carried them to the satellite churches. Remember: no bishop, no Lord's Supper. In time the presbyters became identified with one of these congregations. When this identification became complete, the presbyter becomes the priest. The bishop ruled the priests.

Since Christianity first entrenched itself in the cities, rural evangelism followed slowly. Country churches looked to city leadership in the form of presbyter/priests.

Evidence supports this growing hierarchical view. About A.D. 200, Serapion, bishop of Antioch, superintended churches in nearby Rhossos and other communities. Groups in Pontus were grouped, with each church answerable to one bishop. Armenia, by A.D. 250, recognized one bishop. By A.D. 170 two bishops shared oversight of Crete. Bishops responsible for large regions appointed subordinate bishops. The former was archbishop. In due time five major bishoprics rose to the top: Alexandria, Antioch, Jerusalem, Rome and Constantinople. Bishops in these cities, the Metropolitans, superintended an increasingly tiered structure. Still, for all their prestige, they were only bishops and each bishop theoretically remained equal to every other bishop.

Montanism represented a reaction to growing clerical power. Montanus began a "spiritual" revival complete with tongues and miraculous gifts about A.D. 156. Montanus claimed God gave this new outpouring of the Holy Spirit. His party said they were "led by the Spirit," they had no need for external authority such as bishops.

C. There was the development of Apostolic Succession. This doctrine supposedly "guaranteed" the bishop's validity. A true bishop traced his ordination back to an Apostle. If the bishop traced his ordination back to an Apostle, his teaching or doctrine could be trusted.

Historians credit Irenaeus with the concept of Apostolic Succession. Irenaeus came from Smyrna, and might have heard Polycarp teach. Later, he studied in Rome, became a presbyter in Lyons, and ultimately became its bishop.

Irenaeus says orthodox doctrine came from the Apostles. Churches established by Apostles trace their spiritual heritage back to them. If you want to know what the Apostles taught, go to one of these churches. Lyons is located in the west--modern France. The only western church with an apostolic history is Rome. Paul was there. Therefore, Irenaeus says, "Every church must be in harmony with this church (Rome) because of its outstanding preeminence, that is, the faithful from everywhere...." Rome represented a microcosm, a common denominator, a representative of the entire church. So Rome became the picture of the concept of Apostolic Succession.

II. The development of Creeds.

A creed is simply a statement of belief. The "good confession" we use today is a simple creed. The church adopted Creeds to contrast orthodox belief with heretical doctrine. If an individual confessed the orthodox creed, the church would accept them. Matthew 28:19 formed the basis for the first creed, and many others, too. Here are three early creeds.

A. Early Roman Baptismal. An interrogated creed, the church developed this creed about A.D. 150. The baptizer asked the new convert a question. They immersed him after the candidate responded with the correct answer. In all, they asked three questions and the candidate they immersed the believer three times. The questions asked each candidate were, "Do you believe in God the Father? And in Jesus Christ, his only Son, our Lord? And in the Holy Spirit?"

B. The Old Roman Creed. This creed developed about A.D. 200. It supposedly came from the Apostles themselves. From three questions, this creed expanded to thirteen positive statements all affirming the deity and lordship of Christ.

C. The Apostles Creed. This creed grew out of the old Roman creed. It has early origins but you won't find it in its present form until about A.D. 650.

III. The development of the Canon.

Heresy also forced the development of the Canon. A list of approved books was essential because heretical groups provided their own lists of approved literature. Marcion provides the best example.

Marcion, a native of Sinope, a seaport in Pontus on the Black Sea, was a bishop's son. His father excommunicated him for gross immorality. Marcion made his way to Rome about A.D. 140 where he joined the church. He acquired substantial wealth and recognition. In A.D. 144, the Roman church excommunicated him because of his lack of orthodoxy. Upon his exclusion, the church gave back all of his contributions.

Marcion claimed to represent pure Apostolic teaching. He taught a dualistic faith similar to Gnosticism. Seeking to provide Scriptural basis for his teachings, he gathered together a list of approved New Testament books. Marcion's list included eleven books: Luke, minus the first two chapters, and ten of Paul's letters. He omitted 1 and 2 Timothy and Titus.

The church also developed a list of approved books because many questionable books circulated in the church. Fanciful for the most part, these books often represented Gnostic teaching. Some, like Acts of Paul or the Acts of John, were sheer fiction. Others, such as The Shepherd of Hermas and The Epistle of Barnabas rivalled current New Testament books.

No committee selected Canonical books. The church recognized books already accepted. No real questions existed about the four gospels, Acts or Paul's letters. The church always recognized most of the 27 books comprising today's New Testament. Two criteria seem outstanding: (1) Did the book agree with known Apostolic doctrine? (2) Did it come from the Apostolic period?

One early canon, The Muratorian Canon, dates from about A.D. 170. Scholars discovered the list in the 1800s. While only fragmentary, the list says the third and fourth gospels are Luke and John. It lists every other New Testament book except Hebrews, James and 1 and 2 Peter. It does list A Revelation of Peter, but considers it questionable. It also includes the Wisdom of Solomon which you usually find in the Old Testament Apocrypha.

You see the term New Testament generally accepted by the end of the second century. By A.D. 200, general agreement existed on 20 of the books. Eusebius wrote the churches during the 200s about books they accepted as Scripture. He broke the responses down into two categories:

The Homologoumena which lists books everyone accepted--the four gospels, Acts, thirteen of Paul's letters, 1 John, 1 Peter and Revelation.

The Antilegomena which lists books recognized by some but not by all--Hebrews, 2 Peter, 2 and 3 John, James, Jude, the Epistle of Barnabas, the Shepherd of Hermas, the Didache, the Gospel of the Hebrews.

The modern New Testament is not "officially" set until the Third Council of Carthage in A.D. 397.


Heresy and persecution resulted in stronger and more definite organizational forms. Persecution resulted specifically in the development of the bishop as a focal point for troubled people. All three developments represent reactions to heresy. 

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