1st - 2nd century: Jews and Gentiles
Persecution sent the followers of Jesus scattering through the towns around the Mediterranean Sea, talking about their new beliefs as they went. This presented their leaders with a problem. Until that time it was Jews who responded to the teaching of Jesus, believing him to be their Messiah. But now Gentiles (non-Jews) who heard that Jesus had risen from the dead believed their message. The Holy Spirit of God was clearly impacting on their lives because they responded in the same ecstatic way that Jesus’ followers had done in Jerusalem at Pentecost. Should they be included in the church alongside Jews?
Paul was identified as having the skills that would be needed to deal with the new circumstances. He was asked to interrupt his studies in Tarsus and come to Antioch. This was becoming a centre for the worship of Jesus, and it was here that the name ‘Christian’ was coined. Paul set off from there on a journey through present-day Turkey with a message about Jesus geared to Gentiles as well as Jews. He and his fellow-travellers left new converts wherever they went.
This led to the first serious controversy in the church’s story. Should Gentiles who began to follow the way of Jesus be required to become Jews? (This would require following regulations about food, and circumcision for men.) Paul and Jesus’ close companion Peter believed they should not. But others disagreed and there were passionate arguments.
In AD 50 the leaders of the Christians in various towns came together in Jerusalem for a council to debate it. Their conclusion was that the heart of the Christian faith was being made one with God as a result of the life, death and resurrection of Jesus. This was a free gift of God, and it did not need to be earned through obedience to any humanly ordained rules. So no additional hurdle should face Gentiles when they responded to Jesus with faith. The implication of this decision was huge because it changed Christianity from a sect within Judaism to a religion with no ethnic or cultural boundaries.
Paul spent the next decade preaching about Jesus and founding churches across a widening area. He wrote letters to the churches he founded, many of which are preserved in the Bible. It is presumed that he ended his days in Rome, perhaps executed. The final reference to him in the Bible shows him under house arrest eagerly awaiting his day in court so that he can proclaim Jesus to the emperor of the world’s biggest state.
The Roman Empire initially had no official policy about Christianity because it was too insignificant. However, as greater numbers of Gentiles became Christians conflict began. Worship of the emperor was enforced in the Empire, but Jews had been given an exemption. Christians couldn’t claim to be exempt because they were now mainly Gentile. But they refused to worship anyone but Jesus. So they put themselves in conflict with the emperor Nero. When Rome was destroyed by a fire, they were a convenient group to blame, and a vicious persecution followed.
As so often in history, persecution strengthened the Christians’ resolve. Martyrdom came to be honoured, even welcomed. Christian communities multiplied, creating a need for more confidence in what was true in circumstances where all kinds of variations might develop. Because of this, creeds that record the basic beliefs began to be agreed. The books that make up the New Testament were gathered (and others which had wayward teachings rejected). To ensure that eccentric variations on Jesus’ teaching did not gain popularity, structures of leadership and accountability were established. The roles of bishop, priest and deacon are still recognised today, although all Christian denominations organise themselves in unique ways.
Breakaway groups nevertheless became a problem. Some people had deeply held beliefs that did not fit the official creeds. The biggest disagreement was over whether the increasing organisation was smothering spontaneity. A man called Montanus criticised the way the official church was ordered and restrained. He recalled the ecstatic worship which has featured in the very first church in Jerusalem. His followers believed that God was communicating directly through this ‘speaking in tongues’. A highly respected theologian called Tertullian joined his group (the Montanists) and so its status grew even though mainstream church leaders denounced it.
The problem never went away. Still today there are churches that emphasise spontaneity and others that emphasise orderliness. For the most part Christians recognise that God inspires both and respect each others’ preferences.
Continue the story of the Christian faith in the next century here.
What the Bible says about it
An extract from the Bible:
There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male or female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.
Where to find it:
About these words:
Words written by Paul to explain that the salvation of Jesus is for everyone without exception.
And they said...
Iranaeus, bishop of Lyons, 130 – 202
Just as the sun, God’s creature, is one and the same the whole world over, so also the church’s preaching shines everywhere, giving light to all who want to come to a knowledge of truth.
Tertullian, church leader in North Africa, about 150 – 212:
However often we are mown down by you, we increase in numbers. It is Christian blood that is the seed.