The Expansion of the Church
“And the Lord added to their number day by day those who were being saved.”- Acts 2:47b
We do not know much about the people Paul mentions in Romans 16, but what we do know offers some insight into the first-century church. Such information prompts us to think about church history and how God has worked through His people throughout the ages. To learn more about what happened in the first few centuries after the Apostolic period and explore how that knowledge can help us today, we will pause from Romans for a few days to look at some aspects of the history and theology of the early church. Our daily studies will be based on various lectures from three teaching series from Ligonier Ministries: Heroes of the Christian Faith and The Communion of Saints, featuring Dr. R.C. Sproul, and A Survey of Church History, Part 1, featuring Dr. W. Robert Godfrey.
Today’s passage from the book of Acts describes the expansion of the first-century church, but the steady growth it portrays applies also to what happened in the second century and beyond. As people went forth to preach Christ, converts were won throughout the Roman Empire. Early on, Jewish influence was quite strong, as much of early Christian worship was patterned after that of the synagogue. It was not too long, however, before there was a decisive separation between Jews and Christians. The earliest believers in Jesus often met in the synagogue on Saturday and then celebrated Christ’s resurrection on Sunday. Theological disagreements, however, along with Christians’ refusal to join Jews in revolts against the Roman Empire in the first and second centuries, led to a permanent break between church and synagogue.
Within the Christian community itself, there were many problems even as the church moved into the Greco-Roman world and gained a hearing among the pagans. Heresies such as Gnosticism and Docetism, both of which denied the goodness of the physical world, held sway in many places. This should not be surprising, for the Apostles had to address beliefs that were later adopted by these heretical movements. For example, John confronts Docetism—the belief that Jesus did not really come in the flesh—in his first epistle. Theologically speaking, however, until the church father Irenaeus arrived on the scene in the latter half of the second century, the early post-Apostolic writings were not very remarkable. But there were notable heroes of the faith during that same era, as we will see in our next study.
The fact that even the Apostles faced heresy in the church cautions us against viewing any past era of church history as a “golden age.” There have been high points to be sure, but Christians are not exempt from sin, and this sin means that the church is never perfect in any generation. Until Jesus returns, we will deal with problems in the church, but that does not mean we should not try to solve them. By His Word and Spirit, God has brought correction to His people over time.
Passages for Further Study
1 John 4:2
2 John 7