Early Christian Views on the Life of Unborn Children

For Christians today, the conclusion is forgone that life is precious. Regarding most pro-life movements is the emphasis on the lives of the unborn. The struggle to obliterate the barbaric custom of aborting the unborn is as much a reality now as it was in the first century to the earliest Christians. Nevertheless, the battle wages on and Christians continue to advocate that unborn lives be regarded as worthy of the same rights and privileges as those already born.

Political rhetoric attempts to sway the conversation to the side of choice. Attempting to be sympathetic to those who make the decision to abort a life, many hold that the decision is itself agonizing and that women must be in control of their bodies and decisions about their “health.”[1] While the rhetoric often frames the conversation and vilifies those of us who are pro-life, it must be stated that this author is as pro-life for the unborn as he is for the living. I would want to appeal to those who contemplate such a decision to end a life to not do so on the grounds of our religion and the esteem that God our Father has for life.

A Theology for Life

When God created humanity, He created them in His own image (Genesis 1:26–27). Having been made in God’s image, anyone who took life was to lose their own for the reason that they destroyed the image of God: “Whoever sheds man’s blood, by man his blood shall be shed; for in the image of God He made man” (Genesis 9:6). In the ancient East, appearing in God’s image implied a “representation of identity relating to the office/role and the value connected to the image …  The image of god did the god’s work on the earth. The biblical view is similar as people are in the image of God, embodying his qualities and doing his work.”[2] Because each human bears God’s image, this is the source of human worth and personhood.

The language used of those unborn gives us a greater understanding of God’s esteem for those in the womb. These pre-born image bearers of our Father have as much worth and personhood as those outside the womb.

For You formed my inward parts;

You covered me in my mother’s womb.

I will praise You, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made;

Marvelous are Your works,

And that my soul knows very well.

My frame was not hidden from You,

When I was made in secret,

And skillfully wrought in the lowest parts of the earth.

Your eyes saw my substance, being yet unformed.

And in Your book they all were written,

The days fashioned for me,

When as yet there were none of them.

Psalm 139:13-16

This particular Psalm gives us an idea of the great care with which God acts during the gestation period of the unborn. While science gives us a technical explanation, the Psalm enlightens us with a poetical explanation of God’s workings. Therefore, we read in another Psalm that “the fruit of the womb is a reward” (Psalm 127:3). It was the fruit of Mary’s womb that Elizabeth blessed (Luke 1:42). A child is not a burden, but God’s gift.

God reveals that He knows the unborn even before they form in the womb (Jeremiah 1:4–5). Yet, while in the womb, they are regarded as living beings and the discussion about when life begins is unnecessary (cf. Luke 1:41). In the Mosaic Law, if the unborn were harmed, retribution was necessary (Exodus 21:22–25). We also see this reflected in our own laws when a pregnant woman suffers harm along with her unborn child. The treatment of such matters is as if harm were done to two people, but were the vessel to decide that the unborn were unwanted or a burden, they would need only to “chose” and the treatment of the unborn as a person is neglected for the idol of choice.

Abortion in Greco-Roman Society

Hippocrates (c. 460–375 BC) was a pioneer of medical theory as well as the oath that all physicians swore by upon beginning their practice of medicine, and still do today from my understanding. A part of the Hippocratic Oath states, “I will not give to a woman [an abortifacient].” Abortion was rather common in antiquity, but Greco-Roman society wasn’t entirely careless regarding the unborn. In some cases, abortion appears as wrong as we believe it to be today. For example, in Athens, if a man died while his wife was pregnant and she aborted the pregnancy upon his death, she was charged to have committed a crime against her husband. The legal theory was that her abortion was criminal since the unborn child could have claimed the late father’s estate, so it was more a matter of property rights than a moral statute. Fast-forwarding closer to the advent of Christ, we see that not much had changed in this regard.

Ovid’s work Amores was first published in 16 BC. In this work of poetry, Ovid mentions abortion in the early Roman Empire and the unborn child as a “burden” (Am. 2.13). However, in the next elegy, he refers to the fetus as “tender” and the destruction of it as by a “warlike method.” This particular elegy is against abortion because it robs society of her Caesars and other heroes. Furthermore, were this a common practice, Ovid suggests, there would be no humanity. He asked why women would “thrust and pierce with the instrument and give dire poisons” to unborn children, which explains how abortions were performed then (Am. 2.14). The methods of abortion were sometimes as risky for the mother as they were for the unborn baby and many women died from having attempted to terminate their pregnancy.

The Roman statesman, Cicero mentions a disdain for abortion similar to the Athenian law mentioned above. A mother had been bribed by alternative heirs to terminate her pregnancy, which she did. The mother, in turn, was condemned to death because she cheated the father of his posterity and the Republic of a potential citizen (In Defense of Cluentius 32).

The philosophical school of Stoicism held that life began once a child was born. The breathing of a person outside the womb was the moment life began. This thinking allowed abortion to be acceptable, and Seneca the Younger (c. 4 BC–AD 65), a Roman statesman and philosopher, was able to use this belief in the legal system. Seneca wrote that “unnatural progeny” were destroyed, which was likely a reference to an incestuous conception. He also wrote about drowning children that were born abnormal and weak (On Anger 1.15.2–3), but I’ll talk more about infanticide in the next chapter. The Stoic idea that unborn babies were not humans came to influence Roman law and only further justified the practice of abortion.[3]

Not all Stoics, however, consented to abortion being a good thing. Musonius Rufus (c. AD 30?–102) saw abortion as inhuman. He saw its purpose as solely of enhancing the firstborn’s inheritance more than anything, which amounted to greedy motives. The lawgivers, he contended, functioned to discern what was lawful and good for the state, as well as what was bad and detrimental to it. The lawgivers, he recalled, urged the increase of the homes as something fortunate. So fortunate was the increase of the homes “that they forbade women to suffer abortions and imposed a penalty upon those who disobeyed” (Discourse 15). His discourse on this matter is likely a referendum against the common practice of abortions in the first century.[4]

Juvenal wrote that wealthy women would not endure labor, but would dull the pain with drugs or obtain an abortion (Satire 6.593–96). He also wrote how Emperor Domitian (c. AD 81–96) impregnated his niece and then gave her abortive drugs. The niece in question, Julia, died in AD 91 as a result of the abortion (Satire 2.20–24). Here we see another example of why abortions were performed (incest). Wealthy people may not have just wanted to deal with it, so they selfishly terminated the pregnancy. However, there was another reason for terminating a pregnancy. Slave women might terminate a pregnancy to avoid bring up a child in slavery.[5] The slave women would have had to have done this in secrecy because a slave’s child was the property of her master and not her own.   

In the second century, the Greek gynecologist, obstetrician, and pediatrician, Soranus of Ephesus, wrote his work Gynecology which explains how medical knowledge at the time treated various related matters. In this work, he distinguished between an involuntary abortion—what we’d call “miscarriage”—and the willful termination of pregnancy. He also distinguished between a contraceptive and abortive. The former was to prevent conception from taking place while the latter was intended to expel the unborn from the woman’s body (Gyn. 1.59–60).

In discussing when an abortive was given, he noted that some would not give an abortive if a woman wanted to terminate the pregnancy due to adultery or because she wanted to preserve her youthful beauty—again, two reasons why abortions took place then. An abortive would be given if it were discovered that the woman’s body, according to the science then, were determined to be unable of birthing a child and thus risk the mother’s wellbeing. However, Soranus preferred contraceptives to an abortive as a preventative risk, because “it is safer to prevent conception from taking place than to destroy the fetus” (Gyn. 1.60). He then went on to list various concoctions that could be used as a contraceptive or abortifacient, but if used to terminate a pregnancy, serious side effects followed that posed significant risks (Gyn. 1.61–63). Yet, this didn’t prevent him from explicitly naming how one might terminate a pregnancy (Gyn. 1.64–65).

While more citations could be supplied to the ends of showing how common abortion was, we also noted a couple of pagans who were against it, but not for the same moral reasons early Christians stood opposed to the practice. Additionally, there were others who opposed abortion in antiquity, but Christians gave a clearer understanding of why it was wrong that distinguished them from others. It’s now to this focus that we turn.

Early Christians as Pro-Life

What we must admit is that there are no clearly stated prohibitions against abortion in the New Testament. However, early Christianity borrowed their moral understanding of various issues from Judaism, so we, first, look the Jewish historian, Josephus (c. AD 37–100). He wrote about the Jewish prohibition against abortion on the basis that it was a matter of Jewish law.

The law, moreover enjoins us to bring up all our offspring, and forbids women to cause abortion of what is begotten, or to destroy it afterward; and if any woman appears to have so done, she will be a murderer of her child, by destroying a living creature, and diminishing humankind: if anyone, therefore, proceeds to such fornication or murder, he cannot be clean.

(Against Apion 2.202)

The Ten Commandments were used by early Christians just as they were by Jews—as teachings that pertained to moral living. Notably, the sixth commandment, “You shall not murder,” was given a greater exposition in Christian thinking. When in the late first, early second century, a document known as Didache was written, attention turned to the sixth commandment and stated, “You shall not murder … you shall not engage in sorcery; you shall not abort a child or commit infanticide” (2.2). This document understood the sixth commandment as extending to the unborn. The reason I included “sorcery” as a part of this understanding is that the Greek term translated “sorcery” is the word from which we get “pharmacy.” Therefore, “sorcery” here likely included taking abortifacients—drugs that induced abortion. Our modern understanding of the sixth commandment was clearly understood as extending to the life of the unborn.

Also in keeping with the Mosaic Law, the paths of life and death (Deuteronomy 27–28) are recast as darkness and light in another early Christian writing.

But the path of darkness is crooked and full of cursing, for it is the path of eternal death and punishment, in which way are the things that destroy the soul …  Here are they who are persecutors of the good, haters of truth, lovers of lies; they who know not the reward of righteousness, who cleave not to what is good nor unto just judgment … murderers of children.

(Barnabas 20.1–2)

Christian writers believed that life began at conception. Clement of Alexandria (c. AD 160–215) inferred from Luke 1:41 when John leaped in Elizabeth’s womb that very belief (Instructor 2.10.96). Athenagoras, in the late-second-century, pointed to Christianity’s rejection of abortion as proof that Christians were moral when he wrote that the Christians “say that those women who use drugs to bring on abortion commit murder, and will have to give an account to God for the abortion” (Leg. 35).

Later church councils forbade abortion and actually levied punishments against any who murdered their unborn. The Council of Elvira (c. 4th century) reflects such beliefs.

If a woman conceives in adultery and then has an abortion, she may not commune again, even as death approaches, because she has sinned twice. (Canon 63)

A catechumen who conceives in adultery and then suffocates the child may be baptized only when death approaches. (Canon 68)

Even some of the most notable early church theologians supported this stance. Both Augustine (c. AD 354–430) and John Chrysostom (c. AD 347–407) viewed abortion as murder.

What are we to make of this information? Life is precious and worthy of being protected. Moreover, even without the testament of church history, the Scriptures give sufficient enough evidence for us to believe this once one examines the passages that speak about the life of the unborn. However, for those who desire greater proof, early Christian history is without apology in holding that life begins at conception, so the unborn ought not to be aborted. These two beliefs led to another moral issue. The problem that arose as a result of unwanted children led to the abandonment of children throughout the Roman Empire, so what did Christianity do? They practiced pure and undefiled religion and cared for the orphans.


[1] Perhaps the best source that I’ve read about pro-life principles from a philosophical and practical standpoint is by an obstetrician and former politician, Ron Paul, Abortion and Liberty (Lake Jackson, Texas: The Foundation for Rational Economics and Education, 1983). For a complete classical evaluation of abortion, I’d urge a reading of Michael J. Gorman, Abortion and the Early Church (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 1982). 

[2] John H. Walton, ed., Genesis, in Zondervan Illustrated Bible Backgrounds Commentary, Vol. 1 (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2009), 21.

[3] Cf. Justinian, Digest 35.2.9.1.

[4] Caesar Augustus issued edicts in 18 BC and AD 9 promoting childbearing, but he did not explicitly outlaw abortion (Gorman, Abortion and the Early Church, 27). 

[5] Dio Chrysostom (c. AD 40/50–110/120), Discourses 15.8.

Gregory the Theologian on Celebrating the Birth of Christ

Contrary to the popular claim that Christmas is pagan in origin, early celebrations had little to do with pagan rituals. Instead, they began as a sincere desire to celebrate a part of the life of the Savior—His Incarnation. Disputes existed as to whether or not to count Jesus’ conception or birth as that specific day. Some believed conception was preferable to birth.

Gregory the Theologian, writing in the fourth century, suggested that Christians celebrated Christ’s birthday, then, as a way to tell the story of how God wanted to restore humanity through the life, death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus who came in the flesh. Christians, so Gregory wrote, celebrated God coming to man so that man might return to God by putting off the old person to put on the new person renewed after Christ through baptism (Oration 38.4).  

Furthermore, he encouraged that the celebration not be observed as the heathens observed their festivals.

Let us not adorn our porches, nor arrange dances, nor decorate the streets; let us not feast the eye, nor enchant the ear with music, not enervate the nostrils with perfume, or prostitute the taste, nor indulge the touch, those roads that are so prone to evil and entrances for sin.

Orations 38.5

To read Gregory’s words is to understand that any Christmas celebration was meant to exalt Jesus and distinguish Christianity from paganism through the very festival itself. Yes, some of the same things we do today would be defined as heathen by this fourth-century theologian.

The Contaminated Waters of Baptism

We’re in a room of different people, and you ask the question, “Who all has been baptized? Raise your hands, please.” Hands go up en masse. Then, as you ask these people to detail their accounts, you give a questionnaire to use for this purpose. One question may be, “How old were you when you were baptized?” Some people put a few weeks old, others nine years old, and others put they were in a specific decade. Another question is how you were baptized. There are multiple choices with a box to check beside their answer: sprinkling, pouring, and immersion. You ask what else they did at the time of their baptism, what the baptizer said as they were baptized, and on and on the questions go. Then, you ask everyone to keep their sheets with their answers, and then you open your Bible and begin studying the topic.

Baptism in the New Testament and Beyond

Since we in churches of Christ use the Bible as our guide, we look to specific passages about how the earliest Christians practiced their baptisms. We note that those who were baptized understood what they were doing and consented to such (Mark 16:16; Acts 2:41; 8:37). The only thing that would hinder a person from being baptized would be nonbelief (Acts 8:36–39). Certain people are incapable of faith through no fault of their own (e.g., mentally handicapped, infants). Alongside belief is the confession of Jesus as God’s Son (Acts 8:37; 22:16; Rom. 10:9–13). Since most people in a Bible study lack a working knowledge of Greek, we use our English Bibles and note that baptism was a burial (Rom. 6:4; Col. 2:12) and that whoever administers baptism pronounces Jesus’ words in the Great Commission for the invocation (Matt. 28:19). The result of this, therefore, is forgiveness of sins (Acts 2:38; 22:16), a renewal of one’s spiritual self (Rom. 6:3–4; Titus 3:5), sanctification (1 Cor. 6:11), and the putting on of Jesus (Gal. 3:27). Assuming the person has faith in Jesus as God’s Son and His work on the cross, the medium through which this is accomplished is baptism itself (1 Peter 3:21). The end of that process is called “salvation,” but the key to this salvation is our faith in God (Col. 2:12). Without faith, baptism is meaningless, and with faith, baptism is so meaningful because of Jesus’ work.

This was the understanding of the church in the days of the apostles, the earliest leaders of the church. However, even the second generation of Christians understood this. There was no forgiveness of sins without baptism.

Concerning the water, indeed, it is written, in reference to the Israelites, that they would never accept that baptism which leads to the remission of sins. (Epistle of Barnabas 11.1; c. 132–35)

Some teachers maintain that there is no other repentance than that which takes place, when we descended into the water and received remission of our former sins. He said to me, “That was sound doctrine which you heard; for that is really the case.” (Shepherd of Hermas 2.4.3; c. 150)  

[We] may obtain in the water the remission of sins formerly committed, [where] there is pronounced over him who chooses to be born again, and has repented of his sins, the name of God the Father and Lord of the universe. (Justin Martyr, First Apology 61; c. 153–55)

For centuries, Christianity taught that baptism washed away our sins. It wasn’t until Ulrich Zwingli (c. 1484–1531) that a view contrary to this began being taught.[1]

Contaminated Waters

 A Jewish-Christian source dating to the sixties, Didache, gave instructions for when the optimal environment was unavailable.

Now concerning baptism, baptize as follows: after you have reviewed all these things [chs. 1–6 instructions], baptize in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit in running water. But if you have no running water, then baptize in some other water; and if you are not able to baptize in cold water, then do so in warm. But if you have neither, then pour water on the head three times in the name of Father and Son and Holy Spirit. (7.1–3)

Considering that this may have been composed in western Syria, where there may have been areas where water was scarce, explains the exceptions. This in no way mentions sprinkling but pouring. The thrice pouring of water may have been enough to recreate total immersion and count as sufficient for baptism. It wouldn’t be surprising that it corresponded to the thrice-invoked name of Father, Son, and Spirit.

Sprinkling is mentioned in the New Testament, mainly in Hebrews, but invariably concerning the imagery of sacrifice since the priest would sprinkle the animal’s blood upon that which was being sanctified (Heb. 9:19, 21; 11:28; 12:24). The usage also appears metaphorically (Heb. 10:22; 1 Peter 1:2). However, it’s never used about baptism. These are two separate Greek terms, but sprinkling is predominant in some traditions today despite not being so in the early church.

By the third century, some believed it more appropriate to delay baptism until one neared death. That way, they could be the purest upon dying when they met God. This led some people to wait too long to receive baptism as immersion, which the word actually means. Cyprian of Carthage (c. 250–58) defended sprinkling if one was on their sickbed. He also advocated that sprinkling and pouring were adequate measures of imparting the grace of baptism, citing Old Testament passages as justification (e.g., Ezek. 36:25–26; Num. 19:8). As long as this was done in the church, and the faith of the giver and receiver were sound, it was perfected by the Lord (Letters 69).

His view was relatively new given an occasion that arose where a man on his sickbed received this sort of “baptism.” Novation, a presbyter in the Roman church—oddly enough, one wonders how a person could become a presbyter without first becoming a Christian—was the first to receive a sickbed baptism by sprinkling. Of course, by this time, so much had changed. Only priests administered baptism, and they were to have cleansed the water beforehand so remission of sins could occur. More and more, the clergy came to define the faith rather than the rule of faith itself.

Cyprian also wrote extensively about baptizing infants in his works. He’s one of the earliest explicit sources that attest to this practice but not the earliest to mention it outright. That notoriety belongs to Tertullian, who opposed the practice (Baptism 18; c. 200). Other references have been inferred as suggesting infant baptism earlier, such as Justin Martyr (1 Apology 15.6) and Polycarp (Mart. Poly. 9.3). Nevertheless, the other references are stretches at best. By Tertullian’s time, he referred to it as something already being done “for which a practical and scriptural rationale was advanced (themselves indications of a new practice that needed justification).”[2]

On the one hand, you have infant baptism, sprinkling those on deathbeds, and various other methods of administering this one fundamental grace God imparted. The change came by way of well-meaning clergymen. Yet, in the fifth century, Augustine would refine and propose the doctrine of original sin. The custom of infant sprinkling/pouring would become the standard practice for centuries. The third century certainly had its difficulties with baptism. Still, we must decide whether to work within the confusion of the church’s leaders then or those inspired by the Holy Spirit in the New Testament. Is our baptism apostolic or traditional?


[1] Jack Warren Cottrell, “Covenant and Baptism in the Theology of Huldreich Zwingli,” (Dissertation, Princeton Theological University, 1971).

[2] Everett Ferguson, Baptism in the Early Church: History, Theology, and Liturgy in the First Five Centuries (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2009), 363.

How the Papacy Was Born

Ask anyone who attends a church what the leadership structure is, and you’ll get various answers. Some people have a pastorate, presbytery (elders), and a diaconate (deacons). Others have the pastorate and diaconate (e.g., Baptists). We have presbytery and diaconate with the ministers acting in a role akin to the monarchy of England—we really have no power but yield influence. It’s become common to refer to the preacher as “pastor” in nearly every tradition except the high church traditions where they’re notably called “priest” or “father.” Among us, such preachers are the minister unless also an elder. He can be called pastor then but is usually not.

The person standing in the pulpit is usually esteemed differently than what he would have been in the early church. Church leaders in the New Testament were well thought of but not venerated. They would have been respected for their station and looked to for concrete leadership since the Gospel Way was usually oral more than literary. The Hebrew Scriptures were indeed used in the early church, as they were in the synagogue. Still, the first-century church lacked a complete New Testament as we have today. Instead, they had the leaders of the church (1 Cor. 12:28; Eph. 4:11) and in the congregations (Acts 14:23) to guide them. Additionally, the early church liturgy included robustly doctrinal hymns instead of modern praise and worship one witnesses in most churches. The ancient hymns were statements of belief, and when chanted repetitiously, even the simplest of Christians was capable of repeating them to explain Christianity (Phil. 2:5–11; Col. 1:15–20; 1 Tim. 3:16; Heb. 1:1–3; 1 Peter 2:21–25).

By the end of the second century, Ignatius’ tripartite polity was common throughout the church. After all, his urging Christians to submit to their bishops in all things would have ensured that the one bishop was regarded as the protector of truth. He was a local bishop of a city at the time, but later the position would grow to a territory. By the end of the second century, Hegesippus and Irenaeus had produced lists of bishops throughout various cities. The latter would draw up a list of bishops and strengthen such by arguing their succession from apostles.

The blessed apostles, then, having founded and built up the [Roman] Church, committed into the hands of Linus the office of the episcopate. Of this Linus, Paul makes mention in the Epistles to Timothy. To him succeeded Anacletus; and after him, in the third place from the apostles, Clement was allotted the bishopric. This man, as he had seen the blessed apostles, and had been conversant with them, might be said to have the preaching of the apostles still echoing [in his ears], and their traditions before his eyes.

Irenaeus, Adv. Haer. 3.3.3

Gnostic teachers first claimed an apostolic succession of their teachers, so Irenaeus’ list became a hallmark of the orthodox faith taught in churches. The Roman church rose to prominence for numerous reasons, the least of which entailed Peter and Paul having ministered there for several years. 

The Rise of Roman Primacy

The church at Rome had emerged as a leader of Christianity by the end of the second century. “For it is a matter of necessity that every Church should agree with this [Roman] Church, on account of its preeminent authority” (Iren., Ag. Her. 3.3.2). Being the capital of the empire also had its perks. The Roman church grew immensely during the second and third centuries. Despite being as large as they were, they maintained fidelity in preserving apostolic traditions. Their wealth allowed them to be noticed for their charity, often sending aid to the churches throughout the known world when needed. Some of the members held political positions of influence in the empire as well. This congregation was known to have had direct contact with Peter and Paul, who were put to death in the city.[1] These factors elevated this church throughout the universal assembly of Christians. In time, this notoriety would vest significant authority in the church’s bishop.

Though Peter is often touted as the first pope and founder of the Roman church, history and Scripture would dictate otherwise. When Pentecost came in either the late twenties or early thirties CE, “visitors from Rome, both Jews and proselytes” (Acts 2:10), were among those who heard the good news. Jews had lived in Rome as far back as the second century BCE, with many more becoming slaves due to Pompey’s triumph in the first century BCE. Among the Jews who came for Pentecost were also proselytes—Gentiles who’d fully converted to Judaism.[2] That both existed in Rome indicates that a converted Gentile population already identified as Jewish, so the mix of Jew/Gentile in Rome existed before even the church’s first Pentecost.

When Paul wrote his letter to the church, he made no mention of Peter. Paul’s close familiars, Aquila and Prisca, met him in Corinth when Jews were exiled from Rome, suggesting that the church was already in existence (Acts 18:1–2). Peter went to Rome in 42 CE after having been a bishop of Antioch.[3] As an elder in Rome (1 Peter 5:1, 13), Peter may have aided the church in becoming better structured and ordered, but he didn’t establish the congregation. Paul wouldn’t arrive in Rome until 60 CE and would live there and minister for at least two years (Acts 28:30). After that, we don’t entirely know where he went until the traditional date of his and Peter’s martyrdom in 67 CE. Given the time they spent in Rome, they would have been able to make headways and solidify Christian orthodoxy that would have been the envy of the church.

Ignatius, Clement, and Hermas wrote to the Roman church in the late first and early second centuries. In their writings, the Roman church had a plurality of presbyters-bishops and not a pope. Near the end of the second century, an ongoing debate on the proper date of Easter persisted. Until this time, peaceful tolerance over this difference had prevailed, but the discussion flared up again. Bishops from all over called meetings to discuss this. Some in Asia reaffirmed the practice of observing Easter on the 14th day of Nisan regardless of which day of the week it fell.

In contrast, the others insisted that it should always be celebrated on a Sunday. Victor of Rome grew frustrated by this ongoing controversy and attempted to excommunicate the Asian churches for their view (Hist. Eccl. 5.24.9). This was likely the first time a Roman bishop exercised power over the church universal. Still, this attempt at ex-communication failed despite Sunday being the day that prevailed. Nearly fifty years later, however, Cyprian of Carthage and Stephen of Rome disputed over baptism. Stephen of Rome invoked Matthew 16:18 for the first time to assert Roman privilege. By 382 CE, that text was solidified as a passage of Roman primacy since the see of Rome was then taught to have succeeded Peter. Then, the occupier of Peter’s see became regarded as holding priority over others but was not then necessarily head of the church universal.[4]  

The Papacy as We Know It

As time went on and Christianity grew, the bishop over a capital city or province became known as a metropolitan. Among the metropolitans, those in a city with a more extraordinary claim to apostolic succession were given the title of patriarch. This form of church polity was extant at the Council of Nicaea in 325 CE. An enormous issue arose when Constantine, in 330 CE, relocated the empire’s capital from Rome to Constantinople (Istanbul, Turkey). This city, so named after the emperor, was referred to as “New Rome.” Some believed that the relocation of the imperial capital meant a change for the church, but Rome did not take well to this belief. If the seat of imperial power now rested in Constantinople, fine. However, the Roman church was still to be esteemed as first among equals because both Peter and Paul had pastored there, thus giving them the purest form of Christianity. The first three patriarchates were Rome, Antioch, and Alexandria. Later added to them were Constantinople and Jerusalem. The Nicene Council gave more tremendous honor to Rome and Constantinople, but not authority.

At the Council of Chalcedon (c. 451), equal privileges were given to Constantinople as Rome wielded. These two sees were constantly battling over power and prestige. The Patriarch of Constantinople in 595 assumed the title of “Ecumenical Patriarch.” John the Faster, who’d taken that title, provoked Gregory the Great (Pope Gregory I) to petition the emperor, requesting that he not acknowledge such. By this time, the Western Roman Empire had fallen, and people in the West looked to Gregory for a sense of continuity. Being from a senatorial family, one might think that Emperor Maurice would have weighed this. Still, instead, he acknowledged John the Faster as Ecumenical Patriarch. Maurice was slain by a usurper a few years later, and Gregory sent letters praising the new emperor. Emperor Phocas would, in 606, transfer the title “Universal Bishop” to Boniface III, thus establishing the Roman supremacy of the pope. As you might imagine, the Eastern church didn’t accept this.


[1] Everett Ferguson, Church History: From Christ to Pre-Reformation, vol. 1 (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2005), 138.

[2] Horace portrayed the Jews as forceful in their proselytizing (Sat. 1.4.142–3; cf. Matt. 23:15). Many were Jews by conversion rather than by birth (Acts 13:43. Cf. Juvenal, Sat. 14.102–03). A Gentile could become Jewish by circumcision, immersion, and a sacrifice (Keritot 9a; cf. Pesahim 8.8; Exod. 24:8).However, Gentile conversion was not always welcomed and in some cases was even rejected.

[3] Jerome, On Illustrious Men 1.

[4] Henry Chadwick, The Early Church, rev. ed. (New York: Penguin Books, 1993), 237–38.

From Presbyterian to Monepiscopacy in Early Christianity

My earliest memories in a church were with my grandfather at New Hope Baptist Church in Nashville, TN. I often napped during worship, being younger than eight, and when granddad sang with the choir, a sweet elderly lady had charge over me. When they built a new state-of-the-art facility, we went from the quaint and charming church to the larger sanctuary, where eventually a full-on band would become a regularity. In the old building, we had but a piano, and that was it. There were drums, congas, and various other instruments and performances in the new building that seemed to dominate the service before too long. 

Fast-forward to when my mother met and married my stepfather, I was around nine or ten, and he attended a church of Christ. It was a culture shock. No instruments. No choir. The focus was more so on the sermon than the music. Very different. As a pre-teen, I attended church camp, and one of my uncles sat me down and talked to me about the gospel, sin, and salvation. At Taylor Christian Camp, I confessed Christ and was immersed in the creek, and became a follower of Jesus. An imperfect one at that, but a Christian.

When my (now) wife and I began dating at sixteen, I’d attend mass with her at St. Joseph Catholic Church in Madison, TN, and she would attend services with me. I found the Catholic Church interesting because it was unlike anything to which I’d been accustomed. I had questions. She had questions. We explored our belief in Jesus and what our respective churches did and taught. Still, we ultimately agreed that Scripture would have the final say. When she was seventeen, she confessed Christ as her Lord and was immersed at church camp of all places.

She had already resolved never to attend church as an adult because it was forced on her child, so she believed. Because we agreed that Scripture, not the clergy, should guide our walk with Jesus, she concluded that her christening as an unconsenting child wasn’t faith. Faith is necessary to salvation. As Paul told the Ephesians, we are saved by grace through faith, and the obedience that follows is our yielding to Jesus and His way, the Way. However, something began troubling me. Why were there so many different versions of Christianity? Why was what we did right and others wrong, assuming that was true? Were we even correct to start with? What if, as my wife had concluded, I’d been wrong for so long?

For context’s sake, my wife’s family was predominantly Catholic, and that’s all she had known. My family, however, was an assortment of various beliefs. We were Baptist but had aunts and uncles that were sort of charismatic—Church of God. I had cousins that were Mormons and other kin that were Methodists. My wife’s family was Catholic, and now I’m “church of Christ,” as one might say. What’s right? I began an exploration of this topic. What does the New Testament teach, and when did things start to change? That’s what I wanted to find out. Thankfully, a dear friend and mentor pointed me to Everett Ferguson’s work. Specifically, his book, Early Christians Speak, and so began my love of church history. I’d actually write my doctoral dissertation on Christian hospitality in the early church into late antiquity. I absolutely love history. It has been a great aid in determining why I believe what I believe and still believe.

Looking to the Top

I came to learn about first-century Christianity that many people couldn’t read. Only a few had access to the writings that now make up the New Testament because not every church had a complete Old and New Testament in them. With that in mind, we have to ask ourselves how the church functioned without a New Testament. Obviously, in the first century, there were apostles, prophets, teachers (1 Cor. 12:28), evangelists, and pastors (Eph. 4:11). These people led the church and guarded sound doctrine (orthodoxy) and, in turn, passed it on to others who would take up their mantle (cf. 1 Tim. 5:20; 2 Tim. 1:13; 2:2). Congregations weren’t relegated to a building on the local level as we tend to envision Christianity in America. It was typically by locale. House churches were dispersed throughout a city or province, with elders appointed over the saints in those areas (Acts 14:23). They guided, taught, and shepherded God’s people, and a part of their position was to guard sound doctrine among the saints (Titus 1:5–9).

In the New Testament, the terms “elder,” “bishop,” and “pastor” were used interchangeably of the same ministry (Acts 20:17, 28; 1 Peter 5:1–4). No one man had the title and oversaw a congregation, but a plurality of such men (cf. Phil. 1:1). They were responsible for those among them (1 Peter 5:2), so their oversight couldn’t have spread to other areas over which they knew little. The apostles, however, were leaders of the church in its universal sense. They could order and rebuke as the Lord willed. The elders of those congregations throughout the ancient world were to maintain what the apostles taught. Since we lack the apostolic presence today, this is why we rely upon Scripture. Moreover, the ancient church saw the apostles capable of imparting a measure of the Holy Spirit that would have proved beneficial to the congregations through spiritual gifts such as prophecy and the like. We lack such miraculous means today, but we do have the Scriptures, and they are sufficient.

Aiding the pastors in their works were deacons. The term “deacon” sounds churchy, but it means to minister or serve when translated. Deacons were often paired with elders (Phil. 1:1; 1 Tim. 3) and subordinates. Timothy was regarded as a deacon despite our English Bibles translating the word as “minister” (1 Tim. 4:6). What’s likely is that he was regarded as something other than just a deacon because of the particular task given to him among the Ephesians. Just as one term can have several different meanings, it was given a different meaning to Timothy.

In such a case as Timothy being a minister, this would constitute the third class of church leadership behind the elders but seemingly equal to the deacons. Timothy was gifted and appointed by the elders and endowed with a measure of the Holy Spirit’s gifts by Paul (1 Tim. 4:14; 2 Tim. 1:6). I think that it would be safe to say that such men didn’t wear the clerical dress (Matt. 23:5), equated themselves with God (cf. Acts 10:25–26), and bore no religious titles (Eph. 6:21; Phil. 2:25; Col. 1:7; 4:7). It might be safe to say that those who led the church in orthodoxy, service, and ministry were relatively simple and faithful as many would endeavor to be in the years that followed. However, circumstances would arise that would bring about changes in the way the church operated. These changes would eventually result in the Western Church departing from the apostolic polity of the church.

The Second Generation of Christians

Do you remember the biblical story when Jesus brought a child before His apostles and urged that they become like the child to see the kingdom of heaven (Matt. 18:1–5)? Later tradition claims that the child later became a leader in the church. His name was Ignatius, and he served in the Antiochene Church. There’s a little dispute around when he was a bishop of Antioch. If we follow the Orthodox ecclesial history, Peter was the first bishop. Evodius or Ignatius was the second or third bishop following Peter. Regardless, in or around 69 CE, Ignatius became a church leader in his mid-thirties or early forties. Before this time, he had been a disciple of the Apostle John with a dear friend and brother, Polycarp.[1]

Ignatius was martyred between 98–117 CE, with 108 being a rather popular date. As he journeyed to Rome from Antioch in Syria, he and the soldiers guarding him made some stops along the way. Ignatius would write several letters during visits as he headed for his martyrdom. We see in them a change in the polity of the church. Consider that Ignatius was the second generation of Christian leaders, so he wasn’t as concerned with being a “New Testament Christian” because such wasn’t a blip on the radar then. He was concerned with maintaining orthodoxy among the churches. In the local church, he believed that the bishop, an elevated elder with ties to an apostle, was the one to do just that.

Since, then, I have had the privilege of seeing you, through Damas you most worthy bishop, and through your worthy presbyters Bassus and Apollonius, and through my fellow-servant the deacon Sotion, whose friendship may I ever enjoy, inasmuch as he is subject to the bishops as to the grace of God, and to the presbytery as to the law of Jesus Christ, [I now write you].

Ignatius, Magnesians 2

This is among the earliest letters when the ministry of elder (presbyters) and bishop are separate rather than a particular position in the New Testament. As the letters go on, the views become more evolved.

For when you obey the bishop as if he were Jesus Christ, you are (as I see it) living not in a merely human fashion but in Jesus Christ’s way, who for our sakes suffered death that you might believe in his death and so escape dying yourselves. It is essential, therefore, to act in no way without the bishop, just as you are doing. Rather submit even to the presbytery as to the apostles of Jesus Christ …. Those too who are deacons of Jesus Christ’s “mysteries” must give complete satisfaction to everyone. For they do not serve mere food and drink, but minister to God’s Church.

Ignatius, Traillians 2.1–3

See that you all follow the bishop, even as Jesus Christ does the Father, and the presbytery as you would the apostles; and reverence the deacons, as being the institution of God. Let no man do anything connected with the Church without the bishop. Let that be deemed a proper Eucharist [Lord’s Supper] which is [administered] either by the bishop, or by one to whom he has entrusted it. Wherever the bishop shall appear, there let the multitle also be; even as, wherever Jesus Christ is, there is the Catholic Church.

Ignatius, Smyrneans 8

Now, if Ignatius introduced something new, evidence should exist that supports my earlier conclusion, right?

One source that dates to the sixties acknowledges bishops and deacons (Didache 15.1), while another that dates to the last decade of the first century does as well (1 Clement 42.4–5). Even Ignatius’ contemporary and fellow disciple under John, Polycarp, saw the church as administered by presbyters and deacons (Philippians 5.2; 6.1). Polycarp’s letter to the Philippians was written around Ignatius’s death and after his letters. Still, for some reason, Christianity adopted his threefold structure. The early fifth-century scholar Jerome wrote that a presbyter and bishop were the same things. The distinction came in, he writes, in Alexandria during Mark the Evangelist (c. 49–74 CE)—author of the gospel. Jerome wrote that the presbyters elected a bishop from among them to hold a more exalted position just as an army elects a general (Letter 146.1). The conclusion about elders and bishops being one and the same, as I mentioned earlier, is the same position that Jerome took a few centuries after Ignatius and others ran with the Ignatian structure. Upon further studying Jerome’s views on the matter, church historian Philip Schaff wrote that Jerome believed this to have been a “custom of the church” to root out heresies.[2]

Final Thoughts

As changes such as these began, the greater authority would be vested in those holding official positions in the church. The result would be two classes of Christians: clergy and laity. The clergy would emerge as the authoritative figures. Therefore, what the clergy said, went. Heresies that arose in the first and second centuries were the impetus to the tripartite congregational polity, but it wouldn’t stop there.


[1] See Andrew Stephen Damick, Bearing God: The Life and Works of St. Ignatius of Antioch the God-Bearer (Chesterton, IN: Ancient Faith Publications, 2017).

[2] In George Park Fisher, History of the Christian Church (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1907), 52.

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