Apostasy in the Early Church

extracted from

The History of the Church
Howard A. White

|The Early Church| |Apostasy in the Early Church| |Development of Papal Power| |Reformation Movement| |Rise of Denominations| |Spread of Denominations| |Restoration Movement| |A Warning|

The early Church went through various stages of imperial persecutions and during this period the organization of the church began to undergo a gradual change which marked the beginning of a great apostasy. The apostles had definitely foretold that a falling away would take place. They had even warned that false teachers would arise from within the church, even from among its elders, speaking perverse things to draw away the disciples after them.1 In view of the predictions of the apostles, it is interesting to notice that the first departure from the New Testament pattern which history records did take place through the action of some elders of the church of the Lord.


Sometime during the second century the practice was introduced of selecting one of the elders to preside over the meetings as a permanent president. This elder was called the "bishop" to distinguish him from the other elders. The New Testament applies the terms "elders" and "bishops" to the same men in the church. No distinction was made among them in rank or authority. When this distinction in name was introduced, of course it was followed by a distinction of authority. The bishop came to be recognized as having greater voice in the affairs of the church than other elders. The authority of the bishop increased until each bishop was assigned a definite territory was called a diocese. In some cases the diocese was so large that one bishop could not look after it, and this situation called for a division of the territory. In this way, another class of officer was created. He was called the "Chorepiscopus" or "Country Bishop." His rank was midway between the "City Bishop" and the elders.

Various questions and problems would arise and it was thought necessary for the Bishop and Presbyters or elders to meet and discuss them. This gave rise to the practice of calling occasional conventions. This idea grew until these conventions took on the nature of permanent institutions and were known as Synods and Councils. They were called synods by the Greeks and councils by the Latins. Those who attended these meetings gradually became legislative bodies with power to decide issues and make decrees for the churches.

The Council and Synods were presided over by the bishops of the churches from the chief cities. This naturally augmented the power of these Bishops. The position of president of a council soon came to be regarded as an office within itself. The situation called for a name to distinguish this officer from other bishops in the church. So a new name in church organization was added to the already growing list of unscriptural offices and officers. Those who presided over the councils were called metropolitans.

Up to the fourth century these Councils or Synods were held in the various provinces over which the Metropolitans ruled and each Metropolitan was independent of all the other Metropolitans in the government of his province. (In) 325 A.D. the emperor Constantine called the first General Ecumenical Council. This Council was composed of Commissioners from all the churches of the Christian World and represented the Church Universal.2

The ecclesiastical rulers who were placed over these larger districts were called patriarchs, which means "chief fathers." At first there were only three patriarchs; at Rome, Alexandria and Antioch. Later, the bishops of Jerusalem and Constantinople were made Patriarchs, making five in all.

A study of these facts of history should serve as a solemn reminder that small beginnings in the wrong direction may result in wide departures from the truth of God. The organization of the church underwent so many changes that it held no resemblance to the New Testament pattern. God’s way was for each congregation to have elders and deacons. The elders were also called bishop, pastors and presbyters.

As the movement began away from this simple plan, first we see one elder distinguished from others as the bishop; then there were city bishops and country bishops; next there came the metropolitans; then the patriarchs. This brings us to within one step of the pope who gained power over both church and state.

Of this changes in the organization of the church, Mosheim says,

Hence, it came to pass that, at the conclusion of this century (4th Century), there remained no more than a mere shadow of the ancient government of the church. Many of the privileges which had formerly belonged to the presbyters and people were usurped by the bishops, and many of the rights, which had been formerly vested in the universal church, were transferred to the emperors, and to subordinate officers and magistrates.3


Another departure from the New Testament pattern which gradually took place along with the changes of church organizations was the distinction between preachers and other members of the church. By the close of the Second Century the idea began to take shape that the ministry possessed the attributes of the priesthood. This idea borrowed support form Judaism. The effect was that the clergy came to be exalted in the popular opinion as a higher order and was separated from the laity. This idea has manifested itself in various ways and to varying degrees in the different religious groups down through the years. It is because of this that preachers and religious leaders have dared to wear such titles as father and reverend which belong only to God.

When we consider the arrogance and the utter lack of humility which characterizes many who stand in the pulpits of out land today, we cannot help but recall the unassuming nature and the deep humility which filled the lives of such men of God as Peter and Paul. When Peter arrived at Caesarea and was met by Cornelius, who fell at his and worshipped him, he raised him up saying, "Stand up, I myself also am a man."4

When the multitudes of Lystra made ready their sacrifices that they might offer them in worship to Paul and Barnabas as gods, these gospel preachers rent their garments and sprang forth among the multitudes, crying out and saying, "Sirs, why do ye these things? We also are men of like passions with you, and bring you good tidings, that ye should turn from these vain things unto a living God."5

The apostles and other New Testament preachers being our example, there is nothing at all in the divine record to justify the practice of having preachers to dress differently from other members of the church and of giving them glorious titles which the Bible ascribes to God.


Since this lesson brings us to the close of a distinct period in church history known as the Ante-Nicene Period, it is well to close with mention of the Council of Nicea.

In 313 A.D. Constantine issued his Edict of Toleration which officially put an end to the persecutions against Christianity by a pagan government. Christianity had won the victory over heathenism, but no sooner than rest came from persecution by heathen hands, a new conflict arose. There arose a series of controversies within the church over doctrine. The three outstanding controversies of doctrine which marked this period are known to history as: 1.The Arian Controversy, which had to do with the doctrine of the Trinity, especially the relation of the Father and the Son; 2. The Appolinarian Controversy, with reference to the nature of Christ; 3. The Pelagian Controversy over questions relating to sin and salvation. As has been pointed out, the method of attempting to settle such controversies was to call the church together in councils. At these councils the votes were cast by bishops. Their decisions were bound upon the lower clergy and the laity.

In an effort to calm the trouble which had resulted from the Arian Controversy, Constantine called a council of the bishops which met in Nicea in Bithynia, 325 A.D. It was attended by 318 bishops and was presided over by the emperor Constantine. Creeds were introduced as a basis of compromise. But the final result was the adoption of a formal statement of faith now known as "The Nicene Creed." "The Council adjourned about the middle of August. ‘The Creed of Creeds’ had been born; Christianity had become the state religion;... and civil and ecclesiastical governments were joining hands."6

|The Early Church| |Apostasy in the Early Church| |Development of Papal Power| |Reformation Movement| |Rise of Denominations| |Spread of Denominations| |Restoration Movement| |A Warning|


  1. Acts 20:28-31; 2 Tim 4:1-6; 2:1-12.
  2. George A. Klingman, Church History For Busy People (Cincinnati, 1928), 13.
  3. John L. Mosheim, An Ecclesiastical History, Ancient And Modern From The Birth Of Christ To The Beginning Of The Present Century, 6 Vols., Archibald McClain, ed. (Philadelphia, 1797), 339.
  4. Acts 18:24-26.
  5. Acts 14:13-15.
  6. Hailey, Abilene Christian College Lectures, 30.

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