4. Consolidation, Schism and Diversity


Before the 400s, a single Christian church (network) existed. The followers of Jesus had been promoted from a persecuted minority to acceptable members of the mandated religion of the State following the conversion of the Emperor Constantine and subsequent edict by Emperor Theodosius. Christianity was now socially and politically "acceptable".

Throughout the Christian world each ethnic group increasingly expressed faith via its language and liturgy and, at times, its own theological nuances. Gradually, cultural, geographic, political and religious differences led to separate churches in the West and East of the Roman Empire. Beginning in the 400s, Eastern churches began to drift from the authority of Rome.

The collapse of the Western half of the Empire in 476 AD meant that no single power had political control there and barbarians (Arian Christians, who were regarded as "not really Christians"; or non-Christians) ruled. Beginning with "Pope" Gregory the Great (540-604) in 590, the church set out to create a Christian world, led by the Papacy.

At the same time, Christian groups were developing new approaches to community (including living as hermits or in isolated monasteries), worship, witness, evangelism and identity.

Debates about Apostolic Succession

The Importance of Context

The New Testament is clear that Jesus Christ has placed ministries in the church and that they had/have a key role in church planting, leadership and teaching, with appropriate authority:

Succession Dogma

It is clear from the New Testament that, as the early church grew, it became necessary to set up clearly defined structures, with recognised spiritual authority and accountability. The increasing size of the church and its enormous geographical spread required a network of leaders to head up local churches and relate to one another, with agreed frameworks.

In the New Testament the concepts of "bishop", "shepherd" and "elder" were often used interchangeably. It is clear that some churches had a multiple eldership.

By the 2nd century, an episcopal (ie governed by bishops) structure was established. By the end of the early Christian period, the church had hundreds of bishops, with varying levels of authority; these were roughly split between "Western" and "Eastern" traditions (based on history, practices and personalities in Rome and Constantinople respectively). The hierarchy of the Western church was asserting itself, moving from local leadership and service to claims to universal (or "Catholic") authority over the entire Christian community.

Roman Catholics believe that the church has been headed up by a succession of bishops going back to the Apostles, in particular Peter (the "first Bishop of Rome"). The New Testament does not teach this. Not does the election of Matthias to replace Judas (Acts 1:15-26), which was nowhere repeated in the New Testament. None of the Apostles alluded to personal succession. Peter's ministry was to Jews (Galatians 2:9, 10). There is no conclusive evidence that Peter ever went to Rome, let along became Bishop of Rome.

Early church leaders emphasised the roles of bishops:

Church history and tradition are very important; however tradition does not supersede Biblical teaching. The Scriptures are the final authority in any matter relating to the Christian life.

The Origins of "Sainthood"

"Saint" in the NT refers to Christians (eg Acts 9:32, 26:10; 1 Corinthians 1:2; Ephesians 1:1, 4:12; 5:3; Philippians 4:21). Over time the term came to be reserved for "special, worthy, exemplary" Christians, eg martyrs, church leaders, who had influence in heaven.

After Christianity became the official religion of the Empire, it was not long before pagan practices of honouring the divine (their gods and emperors) started to be merged with Christianity. The Roman Catholic position that emerged was that, in general terms, "saints are portrayed in statues, icons, paintings, and other media; they are not worshipped as God is." Non-Catholics and other religions (eg Islam) regard this as idolatry, especially when combined with the adoration of relics (such as the bones of dead saints) and prayers directed to the memories, remains or statues of saints, of to them personally, as intercessors in Heaven.<.p>

Early Monastics

Monasticism (literally "dwelling alone", from Greek monos), describes the mode of life of persons living in seclusion from the world, under religious vows . (Christianity is not the only religion that has monasteries.)

Early Christian monastics sought to follow the examples of Elijah and John the Baptist, who lived alone for periods in desert places and often went without basic comforts. Some early Christian leaders also sought to follow in the steps of Jesus, who spent time alone in the desert after his baptism and was tempted by the Devil. Abba ("Father") Anthony was one of the first so-called "desert fathers" (Greek "heremos" = desert), who renounced positions and possessions (taking as his inspiration Jesus' command to the rich young ruler in Luke 18:22), left their homes, voluntarily adopted celibacy (or abstinence) and lived as ascetics in the desert, where they prayed, meditated at length on the Bible and faith, worshipped, fasted (often excessively), sought to deepen their communion with God and their dependence on Him (citing Matthew 6:25- 34) and trained disciples. Some lived in caves and between walls, others sat on poles for lengthy periods ("stylites", see below). The first known monastery was established in Egypt in 346. There is an irony in "monasterion" = house of lone ones, filled with people looking for the solitary life, ie living alone together. (Meditation is good, but legalism leads to dead tradition.)

The idea of the "cenobitic life" (koinos + bios = common life") came from Pachomius (290-346), also in Egypt; "rules" were established to regulate the common life. Monastics and their writings became popular throughout Egypt and in other parts of the empire. Pilgrims came to sit at the feet of religious masters, returning home to spread what they had learned; some monks were believed to have special access to God and be able to perform miracles.

Monasticism spread through the Eastern part of the Empire through the work of St Basil in Cappadocia (c. 370). Basil taught that self-examination, freedom from possessions and commitments and living a more committed life of separation was the ultimate Christian duty.

Martin of Tours, who served in the Roman legions and then converted to Christianity, established a hermitage near Milan, then moved on to Poitiers (Gaul) where he gathered a community around himself. In 372 he became Bishop of Tours in 372 and established a monastery at Marmoutiers.

The first monastery in Ireland was established by St Patrick (390-462). Christian monasteries became much more prominent during the Middle Ages. More about them later in the course.

Christ did not teach a monastic lifestyle. He went about doing good to people (Acts 10:38). Christians are called to be salt and light; to be in the world but not of it (John 17:15, 16), to reach out to all nations with the Gospel (Matthew 28:18-20). Salt only works if it gets out of the shaker. We are not to be conformed to the world but to be transformed by the renewing of our minds (Romans 12:1, 2). Sinful pleasures are not overcome by escaping from the world or punishing ourselves, but by the grace of God, the power of the Holy Spirit and choice.

The Christian lifestyle will often clash with non-Christian values. Throughout history Christians have often found it desirable to go into voluntary exile rather than confront paganism and attract persecution. The type of asceticism demanded by many monastic leaders and orders comes close to the excesses criticised by Paul (Colossians 2:23; 1 Timothy 4:1-3) and others. However, the writings and examples of some in monastic orders can nevertheless inspire us to deepen our personal devotion to Christ.


The stylites (from the Greek stylus, or pillar) were early Christian mystics in the Eastern part of the empire who lived on top of poles in order to fast, pray and preach. They commonly believed that by punishing and disciplining the flesh they would be spiritually victorious and assured of salvation. Some remained perched on their poles for a number of years.

The most famous stylite was Simeon Stylites the Elder, who climbed a pillar in Syria in 423 AD and remained there until he died (37 years later). Simeon had many disciples and imitators.

Early Christian Worship

Places of Worship

Followers of the one who had nowhere to lay His head (Matthew 8:20) originally met in synagogues, homes, public halls and (as persecution increased) underground (sometimes literally so). The subsequent formal recognition of Christianity brought wealth into the church. Christian communities were now free to construct temples (the absence of which had formerly led to persecution of them as "atheists" by superstitious pagans). The ornateness of places of worship would increase over coming centuries. The concept of "house of God" would move from the people of God (a spiritual temple, not made with bricks and mortar, cf Ephesians 2:19-22) to physical buildings. Far from having to confess "silver and gold have I none", the church could increasingly command material resources and acquire places of worship, political influence, religious trappings and respect; the downside was that it was no longer to say to the physical and spiritual cripples, "in the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth rise up and walk" (Acts 3:6.).


Baptism was practiced in pre-Christian times, for example baptism for converts to the Jewish faith. Jesus' cousin John practiced baptism and it is clear the disciples did so as well (John 3:22, 26). From the very beginning of Christianity, when a person made a decision to become a Christian, he or she was usually baptised (by full immersion) without delay (eg Acts 2:38; 16:33).

The concept of baptism literally means immersion, however the practice of baptism quickly shifted from immersion to various forms of sprinkling or anointing.

The Lord's Supper

The early church developed a practice of meeting for worship on the first day of the week (Sunday, aligned with the day of Jesus' resurrection) The Lord's Supper, or Communion, was instituted by Jesus as a memorial, so that His followers would remember Him (1 Corinthians 11:23-26).

Over time, the symbols and practices of the Lord's Supper came to acquire mystical powers of their own. Bishops began to teach that the bread and wine actually became the body and blood of Jesus, sacrificed repeatedly, with priests formally officiating as a prerequisite to being valid. (After 831 the doctrine of transubstantiation was articulated as such; it was formally recognised at the Fourth Lateran Council of 1215.)

Emphasis on the resurrection of Jesus as the final triumph also shifted back to the cross as a place where Jesus was seen as continuing to suffer at the hands of sinners.

Use of Incense in worship

The practice of burning incense occurred in the Old Testament and some pagan religions and was opposed by church leaders in the fourth century. Over time it came to be accepted in Christian circles, seen as symbolic of prayer, the presence of God, or a cleansing power to remove the guilt of sin. Evangelical churches do not normally use incense.


The New Testament teaches that we should confess our sins and weaknesses to one another, as part of a process of wholeness (James 5:16). We should pray for one another. A lot of good work has been done over the centuries by Christian leaders and counsellors, but in the final analysis there is only one mediator between us and God, and only one avenue for forgiveness of sin, ie Christ (John 14:6; 1 Timothy 2:5), so confession should never be to another person in the capacity of an additional mediator and forgiver.

The priesthood

Early Christians believed that every believer was part of a "royal priesthood" (1 Peter 2:9.). However, as the church became more structured and the power of the clergy increased, priesthood passed to a select group that was regarded as separate from the "laity" and as recipients of a special measure of divine grace, in a position of relationship with God that merged with that of mediator.


Copts (from Kpt, the way Arabs pronounced the Greek word for Egypt, Aigyptos) believe that their founder was John Mark, one of the 72 apostles sent forth by Jesus Christ and author of the Gospel of Mark. Mark ordained one bishop (Anianus) in Egypt and seven deacons and founded the school of Alexandria. According to tradition, he died in Alexandria in 68AD after being dragged by horses through the streets. Copts count him as the first of their chain of 118 patriarchs (popes).

By 180 AD, the school of Alexandria was an established centre of learning. It served as the cornerstone of Coptic teaching for four centuries. One of its leaders was Athanasius (296-373AD) who created the Athanasian Creed. In the third century, a Coptic monk named "Abba" (Father) Antony established a tradition of asceticism, which is still strong in Coptic Christianity. He became the first of the "desert fathers," a succession of hermits who practiced manual labour, fasting, and constant prayer. Abba Pacomius (292-346) is credited as founding the first cenobitic, or community monastery at Tabennesi in Egypt. The Coptic Church was persecuted by fellow-"Christians" during the third and fourth centuries.

At the Council of Chalcedon, in 451 AD, Coptic Christians split from the Roman Catholic Church. Rome and Constantinople accused the Copts of being monophysite, or teaching only one nature of Christ. In fact, Coptic theology is "miaphysite," ie recognizing Christ's human and divine natures "being joined inseparably in the 'One Nature of God the Logos Incarnate'. Coptic churches were targeted by Rome and Constantinople and a number of massacres of Copts occurred between Chalcedon and the rise of Islam.

With Muslim expansion from 645 AD Copts were permitted to practice their religion provided they paid a "jizya" tax for protection. Copts are still persecuted in Egypt.

Eastern Orthodox

The word "Orthodox" means "holding correct opinions; in harmony with what is authoritatively established, approved, and conventional". Orthodox churches comprise those that accepted decisions of first seven church Councils and relate to the Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople. They are separate from the Catholic communion because of schisms between the eastern and western branches of the organized church. Some differences:

  1. Roman Catholic liturgy was traditionally in Latin. Orthodox Churches use other languages, including Greek, Russian and Syriac.
  2. Orthodox Churches allow married priests. The Roman Catholic Church generally does not.
  3. Orthodox and Catholic Churches use different ways to calculate the date of Easter, so that in most years they end up celebrating the feast on different days.
  4. The Catholic Church recognises the Pope as having supreme spiritual authority on earth. Orthodox churches do not recognise the Pope.
  5. The Catholic Church recognises a number of ecumenical councils that Orthodox Churches do not (eg Trent, Vatican I, Vatican II).
  6. The Catholic Church accepts the 'filioque' clause ("and the Son") in the Nicene Creed. Orthodox churches consider it to be an incorrect addition.
    • And I believe in the Holy Ghost, the Lord and Giver of Life; who proceeds from the Father [and the Son]; who with the Father and the Son together is worshipped and glorified; who spoke by the prophets.

The things that unite Catholic and Orthodox churches are greater than those that divide them. Both are in broad agreement on nearly all major matters of doctrine and most differences between them are cultural. Pope John Paul II made several efforts to bridge the gap.

Like Roman Catholicism, Orthodoxy claims to be universal, the "only True Church".

Orthodox tradition has splintered along national lines, mainly Greek, Russian, Georgian, Romanian, Serbian, Macedonian, Bulgarian, Albanian and Syrian. This multiplicity is reflected in Orthodox communities around the world. Orthodox churches originally used Greek while the Catholic Church in West used Latin. Altogether, there are about 200 million Orthodox adherents.

In Ethiopia (claims links to the Ethiopian Eunuch of Acts 8:26-30) the Orthodox Tewahedo Church is dominant. Part of the Coptic communion for a period.

Syrian Orthodox


Antiochian priests I have met, including the Iraqi-born Patriarch of the Assyrian Church of Antioch and the East, believe their church is a remnant of the original church (Acts 11:19) in the city of that name. The followers of Jesus were first called Christians in Antioch (Acts 11:26). Today the city of Antakya is situated inside Turkey and the Patriarchate is based in Damascus and Sidnaiya, Syria, where I first got to know senior members of this old denomination. In some parts of Syria adherents still speak Aramaic. It is fascinating to hear people speak a language they claim has not greatly altered since the days of Jesus. No wonder they feel strongly about other denominations. Over several meetings I got to know the Patriarch and senior members of his staff. I did not understand his rituals, and I questioned their efficacy in terms of revealed Biblical teaching, but I knew he trusted Jesus Christ for his salvation. Instead of getting hung up about rites and sacerdotal outfits, I was glad to be able to pray with these people and talk about our common faith in the Living Christ and the hope He gives us in a world that is often at odds with faith in God.

Additional Reading

Renwick, AM, The Story of the Church

A Lion Handbook, 1990, The History of Christianity, Lion

Miller, A, Miller's Church History: From the First to the Twentieth Century

Ware, Bishop Kallistos, The Orthodox Way, 1995, St Vladimir's Seminary Press, New York

Ware, Timothy, The Orthodox Church, Penguin Books, Suffolk, 1993


Section OverviewArticle List