The History of the Christian Church
by Petros Presbeftes
with quotations from "The Orthodox Church"
by His Grace, Bishop Kallistos Ware
"In the village there is a chapel dug deep beneath the earth, its
entrance carefully camouflaged. When a secret priest visits the
village, it is here that he celebrates the Liturgy and the other
services. If the villagers for once believe themselves safe from police
observation, the whole population gathers in the chapel, except for the
guards who remain outside to give warning if strangers appear. At other
times services take place in shifts...."
"The Easter service was held in an apartment of an official State
institution. Entrance was possible only with a special pass, which I
obtained for myself and for my small daughter. About thirty people were
present, among them some of my acquaintances. An old priest celebrated
the service, which I shall never forget. 'Christ is risen' we sang
softly, but full of joy....The joy that I felt in this service of the
Catacomb Church gives me strength to live, even today."
Recalled above are two accounts of Church life in Russia shortly
before the Second World War. But if a few alterations were made, they
could easily be taken for descriptions of Christian worship at the time
of Nero or Diocletian. This illustrates how in the course of 19
centuries, Christians have traveled full circle.
Today, Christians stand far closer to the early Church than their
grandparents did. Beginning as a minority, existing in a predominantly
Non-Christian Society, Christianity is once more suffering under this
affliction. Alliances between Church and State, once enjoyed, are now
in one country after another coming to an end. Today persecution is no
longer a fact of the past alone, and sadly, it is probably true that in
the 30 years between 1918 and 1948, more Christians died for their faith
than in the three hundred years that followed the Crucifixion of our
Lord Jesus Christ.
"Suddenly there came from heaven a sound like the rushing of a
violent wind, and it filled the whole house where they were sitting.
And there appeared to them tongues like flames of fire, divided among
them and resting on each one. And they were all filled with the Holy
Spirit." (Acts, Chapter 2, verses 2-4) So the history of the Christian
Church begins, with the descent of the Holy Spirit on the Apostles at
Jerusalem during the feast of Pentecost, the first Whit Sunday. On that
same day through the preaching of Saint Peter, three thousand men and
women were baptized and the first Christian community at Jerusalem was
Through persecution which followed the stoning of St. Stephen, the
members of the Jerusalem Church were scattered. Being obedient to the
command of our Lord: 'Go forth therefore, and make all nations my
disciples' (Matthew, Chapter 28, verse 19), they preached wherever they
went; at first to Jews, and before long to Gentiles too. Some stories
of these Apostolic journeys are recorded by Saint Luke in the book of
Acts; others are preserved in the tradition of the Church. The legends
about the Apostles may not always be literally true, but it is at any
rate a certainty that within a miraculously short time small Christian
communities had indeed been established in all the main centers of the
Roman Empire and even in places beyond the Roman frontiers.
The Empire was predominately an empire of cities, especially in
its eastern parts. The administrative structure of the primitive church
was determined by necessity through these facts in the beginning. The
basic unit was the community in each city, governed by its own bishop,
and to assist the bishop were presbyters or priests, and deacons. The
surrounding countryside depended upon the Church of the city. By the
end of the first century, the threefold ministry of bishops, priests,
and deacons were widely established.
Today, people tend to think of the Church as a worldwide
organization, in which each local body forms a part of the larger and
more inclusive whole. Saint Ignatius did not look at the Church in this
way, but instead he felt the local community is the Church; thinking of
the Church as a Eucharistic society, which only realizes its true nature
as it celebrates the Supper of the Lord, receiving His Body and Blood in
the sacrament. Since the Eucharist is something which can only happen
locally, in each particular community gathered round its bishop; and at
every local celebration of the Eucharist it is the WHOLE Christ who is
present, not just a part of Him, each local community, as it celebrates
the Eucharist Sunday by Sunday, is the Church in its fullness.
One of the mysteries of God is that He can be everywhere at once.
We as imperfect man find it hard to comprehend this mystery. It is an
inconceivable fact to us, but we know it is true. This Truth often
escapes us until we venerate the 'Christ (Pantocratora) Almighty' Icon.
Then we realize that for God, nothing is impossible. God is Almighty,
God is All-Strong, God is All-Able, God is Omni-Present, and God is
Omniscient among other qualities. We cannot look at God directly, but
we see God's influence and power all around us. The mystery of God's
qualities is important to remember when we speak of the Mystery of the
Eucharist, whereby the WHOLE Christ is present in each local community
where Christ's Sacrament is celebrated.
In the early days of the Church, the Faith was pure, and without
division, but some of the members of the early Church began to yield to
the lusts of power. As a result, the doctrines in certain communities
became heretical and Cacodox. The principal center of the problem
emanated from the Roman Empire, just as it became The Holy Roman Empire.
The problems that beset the Early Church were these:
1) Language Barriers between East and West.
2) A Steady and Severe Decline in the West of Educated Men and Women.
3) Power Hungry Government and Power Hungry Religious Officials.
4) A Perception That Religion Could Be Used As a Political Tool.
5) Long distances between Major Centers of the Early Church.
6) Infrequent Communications Between Bishops from West to East.
7) Pressures to Turn the Church in Rome into a Monarchy.
What patterns developed in the Roman Community? As time marched
forward, succeeding Roman Bishops began taking their title of 'First
Among Equals' as a queue to exhibit a 'Papal Supremacy' over the entire
Church. This tendency became worse and worse, as pressures increased
inside the Holy Roman Empire to centralize power within its boundaries.
However, our Lord Jesus Christ made it quite clear that the Holy Spirit
would guide the whole Church, and that the Church as a whole would be
Infallible as to the Statements of Faith and the Life in the Church.
Jesus Christ is the head of the Church, with the Holy Spirit being sent
by both the Father and the Son to protect the Faith from corruption and
distortion. No ONE person on earth has been given the grace of
Infallibility, but the Communities of the whole Church Body taken
together are Infallible in any decision that has been, is, or will be
When Paul and the other Apostles travelled around the
Mediterranean world, they moved within a closely knit political and
cultural unity: the Roman Empire. This Empire embraced many different
national groups, often with languages and dialects of their own. But
all these groups were governed by the same Emperor; there was a broad
Greco-Roman civilization in which educated people throughout the Empire
shared; either Greek or Latin was understood almost everywhere in the
Empire, and many could speak both languages. These facts greatly
assisted the Early Church in its missionary work.
But in the centuries that followed, the unity of the Mediterranean
world gradually disappeared. The political unity was the first to go
and from the end of the 3rd century, the Empire, while still
theoretically one, was divided into two parts, an eastern part in
Constantinople, and a western part in Rome, each under its own Emperor.
The Emperor Constantine furthered this process of separation by founding
a second imperial capital in the east, alongside Old Rome in Italy.
Shortly thereafter came the barbarian invasions at the start of the 5th
Century. The result was the taking of most of the western territories
outside of Italy by myriads of barbarian chiefs. The sister Empire in
the east called Byzantium, still regarded its cousins in the west as in
theory universal, remembering the ideals of Rome under Augustus and
Trajan. Although there were attempts by Justinian to bridge the gulf
between theory and fact, his conquests in the west were soon abandoned.
Justinian became the last Emperor to seriously address this issue.
Consequently, the political unity of the Greek East and the Latin west
was destroyed through the barbarian invasions, and never permanently
This severance was carried a stage further by the rise of Islam.
The Mediterranean, which the Romans once called 'mare nostrum', meaning
"our sea", now passed largely into Arab control. Although never
entirely ceasing, cultural and economic contacts between the eastern and
western Meditteranean became far more difficult.
Being cut off from Byzantium, the west proceeded to set up a
'Roman' Empire of its own. On Christmas Day in the year 800, the Pope
crowned Charles the Great, King of the Franks, as Emperor. Charlemagne
(Charles the Great) sought recognition from the ruler at Byzantium, but
without success. The Byzantines, still adhering to the principle of
imperial unity, regarded Charlemagne as an intruder and the Papal
coronation as an act of schism within the Empire. The creation of the
Holy Roman Empire, instead of drawing Europe closer together, only
served to alienate east and west more than ever before.
With all these pressures mounting, the Roman Bishops were in turn
flexing their Papal Authority to keep the Roman Subjects within their
power and influence. Working together with the Emperor and by merging
Church and State, the Roman Bishops came immediately under close
scrutiny by the Patriarchs of Constantinople.
As a result of the Council of Chalcedon, summoned by the Emperor
in 451, it was decided that five (5) great sees in the Church were to be
held in particular honour, and a settled order of precedence was
established among them. In order of rank, they were: Rome,
Constantinople, Alexandria, Antioch, and Jerusalem. All five claimed
Apostolic Foundation. The first four (4) were the most important cities
in the Roman Empire; the fifth was added because it was the place where
Christ had suffered on the Cross and Risen from the dead. The bishop in
each of these cities received the title Patriarch. The five (5)
Patriarchs between them divided into spheres of jurisdiction the whole
of the known world, apart from Cyprus, which was granted independence by
the Council of Ephesus and has remained self-governing ever since.
It was, and is today, held by the Early Church, which after the
schism of 1054, was known as the Holy Eastern Orthodox Catholic Church,
that all bishops share equally in the apostolic succession; each having
the same sacramental powers, and each being divinely appointed teachers
of the Faith. However humble or exalted the city over which each
presiding bishop serves, all are considered equal in terms of divine
right, even if the bishop has also the title of Patriarch, or
Metropolitan. The system developed at the Council of Chalcedon,
referred to above, of five great sees, came to be known as a Pentarchy.
This Pentarchy, not to be considered to have any precedents of increased
power, was established in order to set up principal geographical
boundaries in the center of which was the bishop who enjoyed a supremacy
of honour among the other bishops in and around Christendom. At the
same time, the system of the Pentarchy, would not impair the essential
equality of all the bishops, nor would it deprive each local community
of the individual importance assigned to it by St. Ignatius, previously.
The Roman Bishop, although having been given a primacy
of honour, together with the right (under certain
conditions) to hear appeals from all parts of
Christendom, was not considered to have or to have been
granted any powers in excess of those granted to any
other bishop. But, the Roman bishop called: First
Among Equals, was thoroughly out of bounds by taking
this 'Title' literally.
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