Christian Way of Life (Early Church)
CHRISTIAN WAY OF LIFE (EARLY CHURCH)
In the Sermon on the Mount, Christ called His followers the salt of the earth and the light of the world (Mt5.13–14); He admonished them to let their light shine among men by way of their good works (Mt 5.16). This admonition was preceded by the discourse on the beatitudes (Mt 5.3–12) and completed with a moral discourse (Mt 5.17–7.29). In the Gospels of Matthew and Mark, the eschatological atmosphere accompanying the call to repentance (metanoia ) is stressed with the proclamation by John the Baptist that the kingdom of God is at hand (Mt3.1–12; Mk 1.4–15). In Luke, the eschatological element is softened in favor of the history of salvation, in which conversion is offered to all through the apostolic preaching; and the promise of salvation is portrayed as realized in the Church (Lk 5.32; 15.7–10; Acts 7.38; 9.31).
Conversion and Metanoia. Conversion signifies a complete turnabout of mentality and a permanent, new way of life. The process of metanoia is described for the Jews in Acts (2.38–40; 3.19–21, 25–26) as the acknowledgment of their sinfulness, Baptism, remission of their sins, the gift of the Holy Spirit, their liberation, and participation in salvation. Paul speaks of the conversion of the Gentiles (epistrephein ) as an opening of their eyes from the darkness to light, a turning from Satan to God, that they might receive the forgiveness of their sins and the call through faith among the saints (Acts 26.18).
In characterizing the way of life of the primitive Christians, the author of Acts says: "The multitude of believers had but one heart and one soul" (4.32). He describes the mutual charity exercised by the original Jerusalem community, in which the members sold their property and placed the price at the feet of the Apostles, who divided it among the members according to their need so that no one lacked anything among them (4.34). This idealized picture receives some support from the fact that the practice of a communal life is known to have been current among the qumram brethren and the Sadocites. It is likewise put into perspective by St. Paul's doctrine concerning the Church as the body of Christ, in which the members, although having different functions, formed part of one sole body (Rom 12.3–8; 1 Cor 12.12; Eph 2.20–22).
The Church at Jerusalem. Although in the beginning the Apostles and earliest converts continued to pray in the temple (Acts 2.46) and follow the Jewish ritual (3.1;5.21), they gradually became aware of themselves as a separate community or church. The term church was applied first to the Church in Jerusalem (7.38), then extended to the Christian communities at Antioch (14.27) and at Caesarea (18.22). The Church at Jerusalem was directed by the elders under the guidance of James the Just, appointed by Peter, James, and John as episcopus, or bishop (Eusebius, Ecclesiastical History 2.1.4), to whom Paul made a special visit during his stay at Jerusalem in 41 (Gal 1.18). While the widows, the poor, and the orphans among the convert Jews were cared for by the Jewish elders, the Apostles provided for the poor among the converts from Hellenism by ordaining seven deacons— Stephen, Philip, Prochorus, Nicanor, Timon, Parmenas, and the Antiochene Nicholas—thus freeing themselves for prayer and the ministry of the word.
The Lord's Day. The Jerusalem Christians assembled for prayer and the breaking of bread in their own homes (Acts 2.46), following the example of the assemblage of Apostles and Disciples awaiting the coming of the Holy Spirit in the coenaculum, or upper room (Acts1.13). When Peter was released from prison, he found a large gathering at the home of Mary, the mother of John Mark, spending the night in prayer (12.12). Paul spoke to a group in the home of Lydia at Philippi (16.40) and celebrated the Eucharist at Troas on the third floor of a private home (20.9). He refers to the church in the house of Aquila and Priscilla at Rome and Ephesus (1 Cor 16.19), that of Nympha at Colossus (Col 4.15), and that of Gaius at Corinth (Rom 26.23). Besides daily gatherings for the breaking of bread and prayers of thanksgiving (Acts 2.46), the early Christians frequently spent the night of Saturday together in prayer after observing the Jewish Sabbath (Acts 20.7), gradually establishing the custom of keeping Sunday as the Lord's day (kuriake or dominicum ). Acts describes the make-up of their meeting, which consisted of an instruction, the breaking of bread for the Eucharist (Acts 20.17) and the recitation of prayers (2.42). The instruction was called the didache or teaching, the exhortation or paraklesis, and the homily (Acts 14.22; 15.32; 20.11).
Postapostolic Documents. The Christian way of life consequent upon the apostolic preaching is described in a series of documents that appear at the turn of the second century. The epistle of clement i of Rome (c. 97) portrays the Church in sojourn at Corinth as a model of steadfast faith, sober and gentle piety, magnificent hospitality, and secure knowledge. Its members are praised for their obedience to God's commandments without care for rank or station, and for the respect they gave their rulers and elders. The young were trained to temperance; wives, to affectionate care for their husbands and household. All were content with the provisions Christ had made for them, and were happier in giving than in receiving. They meditated on the words of Christ, keeping His sufferings ever before their eyes. Under the outpouring of the Holy Spirit on the whole community, they experienced peace of soul, praying to God for forgiveness of inadvertent faults and vying with each other in behalf of the whole brotherhood. They mourned their shortcomings, judging their neighbors' faults their own. In virtuous citizenship, they fulfilled their duties in the fear of the Lord, whose precepts were engraved on the tablets of their hearts (Epistole Clem. 1, 2).
This idealized picture is offset by the history of the dissension that had broken out at Corinth and occasioned the Roman Church's letter, but the exhortations that accompany it reveal a consciousness of the Church as a strong organization whose line of authority descended from God through Christ and the Apostles to the elders of the fraternally united community (ibid. 42.1–5;44.1–2). Despite the ravagings of "envy and jealousy, contention and contumacy" that accompany persecution, the letter insists on sanctification and justification, penance and conversion as leading to peace and order among men, as it characterizes God's creation of the cosmos (3.2–6.4; 13–14; 20.1–12).
Ignatius and Polycarp. According to ignatius of antioch (d. c. 116), the true Christian imitated Christ in His passion, achieving a complete transformation of his way of life by regeneration in God and Christ though Baptism. This is expressed in the charity that begins with the gift of self in and to the community (Epistole ad Eph. 10.1–3; Smyrn. 6.2–7) and is perfected in the Church through a consciousness of unity with Christ and one another that proceeds from, and leads back to, the Trinity by way of the Eucharist, the symbol at once of immortality (Eph. 20.2) and the instrument of unity between the Christians in community and of communities within the Church. In concrete terms this is accomplished by loving care for "widows and orphans, the prisoner as well as the freedman, the hungry and thirsty" (Smyrn. 6.2).
The organization of the Church includes the bishop, who is the "living image of the invisible God" (Mag. 6.1; Tral. 3.1); the priests, "like the college of apostles surrounding Christ" (Phil. 4.1), and deacons, widows, and virgins (Smyr. 13.1). Finally, Ignatius asserts the prerogative of marriage for Christians, entered into with the sanction of the bishop, that it may be in accord with the will of God; and he who can live in continence should do so without boasting (Pol. 5.1–2). This Ignatian doctrine is portrayed on a background of martyrdom, for death in and with Christ is the consummation of union with God that the Christian strives for in the practice of virtue (Eph. 11.1–2; Rom. 2.2).
To the Church at Philippi in the mid-second century, polycarp of Smyrna described the Christian way of life as essentially the imitation of Christ in his patience (Epistle ad Phil. 8.2; 9.1). Christians are to flee avarice and the love of money (2.2); and each in his station—husbands, wives, widows, deacons, and priests—must forgive injuries, practice kindness and moderation toward sinners, and pray for all, particularly rulers and magistrates (4–6). The priest in particular is described as "tenderhearted and merciful toward all, seeking the sheep who have gone astray, not neglecting widow or orphan or poor man…abstaining from anger, respect of persons, and unrighteous judgment, realizing that all are debtors because of sin" (6.1–3).
Hermas, Diognetus, and Justin. The practice of a moral way of life in imitation of Christ was supported by an eschatological conception of the Church that, according to the Shepherd of hermas, had been created before all things and was now, under the guise of a tower under construction, constituted at a time of special mercy in immediate preparation for the parousia, or Second Coming of the Savior. The Shepherd as the angel of penance describes the Church of Rome toward the middle of the second century. It is a populous assembly with a large group of the rich and numerous poor, and among both classes are many who have relapsed into pagan ways, become blasphemers, heretics, and propagandists of a false gnosis (Sim. 8.6–11). Hermas portrays hypocrites, ambitious clergymen, and dishonest deacons, as well as hospitable bishops, honest priests, martyrs, and the innocent. Along with a well-organized hierarchy, he speaks of itinerant apostles and teachers preaching under the inspiration of charismatic gifts, but the problem of their authenticity as faced in the Didache (11.1–12) seems all but solved (Mand. 10.11). For Hermas, it is moral perfection that leads to perfect knowledge (gnosis ); hence faith without works is vain (14.4–5; 40.4; 90.2–3). The Christian is to keep the spirit of God intact within him, practicing continence, chastity in married life (29.1–11), justice, and humility while giving himself to works of supererogation (56.6–7).
In repelling the accusation of atheism and corruption brought against the Christians, the author of the letter to diognetus admits that they are persecuted by both the pagans and the Jews (5.11, 12, 16, 17), but he describes the injustice of this treatment since "Christians do not differ from other men in citizenship, in language, or in dress" (5.2). They are to be found in the Greek and barbarian cities, and conform to local usages as far as dress, food, and manner of life are concerned. They carry out all their duties as citizens. They marry like the rest of the world, but in procreating children, they do not abandon them, and although they partake of a common table, they do not share the same bed. While they pass their time on earth, they live as citizens of heaven; they obey the laws, love their enemies, and return good for evil. In a word "what the soul is to the body, Christians are to the world" (5.1–17; 6.1–10).
justin martyr describes the Christian Sunday (dies solis ) as the day on which those who live in towns or the country come together for a reading of the Gospels (commentarii apostolorum ) or of the writings of the Prophets. When the reader stops, the bishop gives an exhortation stimulating the hearers to an imitation of what has been read. Afterward all rise and pray, after which the bishop blesses the bread and the wine and water with Eucharistic prayers, and those present communicate, sending the Sacrament to those absent through the deacons. The rich make an offering either directly or through the bishop, who cares for the widows and orphans, the sick and indigent, prisoners and strangers (1 Apol. 67). This bread and wine is not ordinary, and cannot be received except by those who believe and have been baptized in the remission of their sins and in the regeneration of Christ (ibid. 65).
Reorganization. Toward the end of the second century, Eusebius describes the status of the Church as in the course of a considerable reorganization (Ecclesiastical History 3–4). In particular, he cites seven letters written by Bishop dionysius of corinth, a contemporary of Pope Soter (166–175), to churches in Asia Minor, Crete, and Rome. In these "catholic epistles, useful to the whole church," Eusebius describes Dionysius as sending the Lacedemonians a catechesis of orthodoxy, devoted to peace and unity (4.23.2). He dispatched an exhortation to faith and conduct in keeping with the gospel to the Athenians (ibid. ), blaming them for a falling off in fervor after the martyrdom of their bishop, Publius. In his letter to the Church of Nicomedia, he combatted the heresies of marcion and recalled the faithful to the rule of faith (ibid. 4). He praised the conduct of the Church at Gortyna in Crete for its great charity and Christian observance, making special mention of its bishop, Philip. He advised Bp. Palmas of Amastris in Pontus regarding marriage and continence, and suggested that he grant pardon to sinners, even to those returning from heresy.
Dionysius cautioned Bp. Pinytos of Cnossos that the burden of continence was not to be put on all the faithful as a necessity, and that he should have in mind the weakness of the majority. In return, Pinytos, although accepting the Corinthian's counsel, suggested that he should not hesitate to feed his flock with stronger doctrine, lest they grow into immature Christians. In replying to a letter from Pope Soter, Dionysius praised highly the generosity of the Roman Church, whose fervor had been preserved down to the "persecutions of our own times" (ibid. 9). He assured Soter that his letter was held in esteem, and records the fact that the letter of Clement I to the Corinthians was still being read in their Church. Finally, Dionysius warned against the falsifications of both the Scriptures and the letters of bishops.
Before the turn of the century, with Tertullian in Carthage, Clement in Alexandria, Lucian in Samosata, Irenaeus in Lyons, and Hippolytus in Rome, the testimony offered by the beginnings of a great Christian literature demonstrates the unity of faith in the diversity of liturgical practice, the problems in the discipline of penance and the instruction of catechumens, and the fervor and perseverence to martyrdom during the periods of persecution, all of which were characteristic of the Early Christian way of life.
Bibliography: j. daniÉlou and h. i. marrou, The First Six Hundred Years, tr. v. cronin, vol. 1 of The Christian Centuries (New York 1964–). j. kleist, ed. and tr., The Epistles of St. Clement of Rome and St. Ignatius of Antioch (Ancient Christian Writers, 1; 1946). p. t. camelot, ed., Ignace d'Antioche: Lettres (Sources Chrétiennes 10; 3d ed. 1958), introd. h. i. marrou, ed. and tr., À Diognète (ibid. 33; 1951) 118–207. j. quasten, Patrology (Westminster, Maryland 1950–) v.1–2. g. bardy, La Théologie de l'Église, v.1 (Unam Sanctam 13; Paris 1945). f. x. murphy, Studia moralia, v.1 (Rome 1963) 54–85. j. dupont, Les Problems du livres des Actres (Louvain 1950). r. michiels, Ephemerides theologicae Lovanienses 41 (1965) 42–78. v. monachino, Gregorianum 32 (1951) 5–49, 187–222. p. carrington, The Early Church, 2 v. (Cambridge, Eng. 1957) v.1. a. fliche and v. martin, eds., Histoire de l'église depuis les origines jusqu'à nos jours (Paris 1935–) v.1–2.
[f. x. murphy]