Problems in the Early Church
The story of the church of the New Testament isn’t the story of victory after victory. There were major battles that had to be fought to keep the early church united. In particular, there were two early disagreements in the church and one battle against false doctrine that had the potential to divide the church or to send the church on a downward spiral into false doctrine.
First, Acts 6:1-7. In the early church, there quickly arose a disagreement between the Hebraic Jewish Christians and the Grecian Jewish Christians. Both groups were Christian. Also, both groups were Jewish. But one group spoke Hebrew and the other group spoke Greek (thus the distinction between Hebraic Jewish Christians and Grecian Jewish Christians). The disagreement came from the Grecian Jewish Christians whose widows were being neglected in the daily distribution of food. So, in essence this was an ethic controversy. The Grecian Jewish Christians brought their grievance to the apostles. This threatened the unity of the church, so the apostles acted. The oversaw the selection of specific men of Grecian background (we conjecture that they were Grecian based on their names) to oversee the distribution of food to the Grecian widows. This solution worked well. Unity continued until the battle for unity occurred. That’s usually how it works. Peace reigns for a while, then another controversy emerges.
The second moment of potential disunity came from Judaizers (Jewish Christians) who demanded that Gentile Christians become Jews and follow Jewish laws and traditions. The Jerusalem Council (James, Peter, and Paul) met in Acts 15 to settle controversy. This occurred around the year AD 49. The leaders did not require the Gentiles to be circumcised or to follow the law, but they did ask that Gentile disciples to be aware of Jewish sensitivities. Later in our studies we will look at ecumenical councils (like the one that occurred in Nicaea in 325). It’s interesting to note that ecumenical councils aren’t all bad; they had biblical precedent. It’s good to get together and discuss our concerns and our differences.
The third moment of potential upheaval in the church came from Gnostic false teachers who claimed that the flesh was evil; therefore, Jesus did not come in the flesh. (To be accurate, this was an early form of Gnosticism; full blown Gnosticism did not arrive until the second century). The Gnostics held to a dualistic philosophy that believed the spirit was good and matter was evil. Salvation was to be acquired through ascetic practices where a person denied the flesh, thus giving life to the spirit. Also, the word Gnostic (from gnosis or knowledge) meant there was a secret knowledge that must be acquired to achieve salvation. The more secret knowledge a person had, the higher that person would climb up the Gnostic ladder.
Paul and John battled this false teaching (1 Timothy 6:20, 1 John 4:2, 3). During the second century whole churches fell into apostasy through Gnostic teaching.
So we see that life in the early church wasn’t easy sledding. Instead, there were various controversies that had the potential to split the church in two (or three or four) sects and factions. Thus you see strong teaching from Paul against false teachers and divisive people.
Isn’t it great that we don’t have any of these types of problems in the church today? I’m not serious. Of course we have these problems today. After all, we are people. Christians yes, but still people, warts and all.