Category Archives: Early Church

Faith and Love in Ignatius’ Letters

Ignatius (35-108 AD), the disciple of the apostle John and overseer of Antioch, left us a series of letters written during his journey to Rome to face trial and eventually martyrdom. They were written to various churches along the journey to encourage and instruct them in his absence.

As I read through his letters recently, I was struck by the pervasive theme of love and faith. Not held apart, but bound together as a unified response towards God and the gospel. For Ignatius, both love and faith are indispensable for salvation.

Ignatius frames salvation as attaining to God—a goal that requires endurance even unto death. If we are found to be faithful at the end, only then are we true disciples of Jesus. Attaining to God is not a mere matter of intellectual faith alone. It also requires true love towards God and each other.

Direct Quotations of Ignatius
One of the most explicit statements of faith and love by Ignatius is found in his letter to the Ephesian church, the same church we know Paul was deeply involved with. As you can read in the quote below, Ignatius viewed spiritual life as a continuum that requires endurance in both faith and love.

None of these things escape your notice, if you have perfect faith and love toward Jesus Christ. For these are the beginning and the end of life: faith is the beginning and love is the end, and the two, when they exist in unity are God. Everything else that contributes to excellence follows from them. No one professing faith sins, nor does anyone possessing love hate. The tree is known by its fruit; thus those who profess to be Christ’s will be recognized by their actions. For the work is a matter not of what one promises now, but of persevering to the end in the power of faith. (Ignatius, Ephesians 14.1-2)

Earlier in the same letter, Ignatius describes the construction of the church as God’s temple, in which both faith and love play a pivotal role in forming this holy body of believers:

[…] you are stones of a temple, prepared beforehand for the building of God the Father, hoisted up to the heights by the crane of Jesus Christ, which is the cross, using as a rope the Holy Spirit; your faith is what lifts you up, and love is the way that leads up to God. (Ignatius, Ephesians 9.1)

Faith, Love, and the Crucified Christ
The theological closeness that the early church held faith and love together can be seen in a unique parallel Ignatius forms between both faith and love, and the crucified body of Jesus. He associates faith with Jesus’ fleshly body and love with Jesus’ shed blood.

You, therefore, must arm yourselves with gentleness and regain your strength in faith (which is the flesh of the Lord) and in love (which is the blood of Jesus Christ). (Ignatius, Trallians 8.1)

I glorify Jesus Christ, the God who made you so wise, for I observed that you are established in an unshakeable faith, having been nailed as it were, to the cross of the Lord Jesus Christ in both body and spirit, and firmly established in love by the blood of Christ […] (Ignatius, Smyrnaeans 1.1)

The Gospel and Our Response of Faith and Love
In explaining the gospel, Ignatius describes both faith and love as our response towards Jesus:

If Jesus Christ, in response to your prayer, should reckon me worthy, and if it is his will, in a second letter that I intend to write to you I will further explain to you the subject about which I have begun to speak, namely, the divine plan with respect to the new man Jesus Christ, involving faith in him and love for him, his suffering and resurrection, especially if the Lord reveals anything to me. (Ignatius, Ephesians 20.1-2)

Again, in response to the gospel, Ignatius instructs his readers to “believe with love.” This is reminiscent of Paul’s statement to the Galatians that “in Christ Jesus neither circumcision nor uncircumcision means anything, but faith working through love.” (Gal. 5:6)

But the gospel possesses something distinctive, namely, the coming of the Savior, our Lord Jesus Christ, his suffering, and the resurrection. For the beloved prophets preached in anticipation of him, but the gospel in the imperishable finished work. All these things together are good, if you believe with love. (Ignatius, Philadelphians 9.2)

I have too many quotes to list out here. I’ve posted the rest of them below this post if you’re curious.

Final Thoughts from Scripture
This theme of faith and love working together is seen all over scripture as well.

I’ve already mentioned Paul, how he taught that what really matters is “faith working through love.” Paul also writes that love is the fulfillment of the Law. All of the Mosaic Law and the Prophets are summed up in love, in loving God and loving our neighbor. (Romans 13:10) Paul also tells us that of faith, hope, and love, the greatest is love. (1 Co. 13:13) Earlier in the same chapter, Paul again emphasizes that without love, faith is nothing. He writes, “If I have a faith that can move mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing.” (1 Co. 13:2)

For the apostle John, who apparently taught Ignatius, love is not only important, but a necessity. He writes in 1 John, “Everyone who loves is born of God and knows God.” And conversely, “The one who does not love does not know God, for God is love.” (1 John 4:7-8)

Finally, when we read in James that we are justified by works and not by faith alone, the context is clear that the “works” mentioned are acts of love. (James 2:24) They are not ritualistic religious practices that have no bearing on one’s heart for others, but are manifestations of godly love.

It is this other-focused love that is essential for Ignatius—true love that fulfills the law and looks not to please ourselves, but serve others. To use Ignatius’ own words, “nothing is preferable” to this love and faith working together in our lives to the glory of God.


Additional Quotes

For just as their are two coinages, the one of God and the other of the world, and each of them has its own stamp impressed upon it, so the unbelievers bear the stamp of this world, but the faithful in love bear the stamp of God the Father through Jesus Christ, whose life is not in us unless we voluntarily choose to die into his suffering. (Ignatius, Magnesians 5.2)

For inasmuch as I have been judged to bear a most godly name, in these chains that I bear I sing the praises of the churches, and I pray that in them there may be a union of flesh and spirit that comes from Jesus Christ, our never-failing life, and of faith and love, to which nothing is preferable, and–what is more important–of Jesus and the Father. In him we will reach God, if we patiently endure all the abuse of the ruler of this age and escape. (Ignatius, Magnesians 1.2)

Do not let a high position make anyone proud, for faith and love are everything; nothing is preferable to them. (Ignatius, Smyrnaeans 6.1)

I welcomed in God your well-beloved name, which you possess by reason of your righteous nature, characterized by faith in and love of Christ Jesus our Savior. (Ignatius, Ephesians 1.1)

[…] the church beloved and enlightened through the will of the one who willed all things that exist, in accordance with faith in and love for Jesus [Or faith and love of Jesus] Christ our God […] (Ignatius, Romans; Salutation)

Be eager, therefore, to be firmly grounded in the precepts of the Lord and the apostles, in order that in whatever you do, you may prosper, physically and spiritually, in faith and love, in the son and the Father and in the Spirit, in the beginning and at the end, together with your most distinguished bishop and that beautifully woven spiritual crown which is your council of presbyters and the godly deacons. (Ignatius, Magnesians 13.1)

I greet the household of Gavia, and pray that she may be firmly grounded in faith and love both physically and spiritually. (Ignatius, Smyrnaeans 13.2)

 

Christians Must Not Deny Jesus When Persecuted (Apostolic Constitutions)

The quotations below from the Apostolic Constitutions (375 AD) give historical perspective on the attitude of Christians regarding martyrdom and the eternal importance of never denying Jesus. As you can read below, it was taught that those Christians that were unfaithful to their confession risked losing their salvation. The memories of persecution were still relatively fresh for the church at this point, which makes these quotes all the more impactful.

I’ve made the particularly relevant portions below bold, although it’s all worth the read.

But he that denies himself to be a Christian, that he may not be hated of men, and so loves his own life more than he does the Lord, in whose hand his breath is, is wretched and miserable, as being detestable and abominable, who desires to be the friend of men, but is the enemy of God, having no longer his portion with the saints, but with those that are accursed; choosing instead of the kingdom of the blessed, that eternal fire which is prepared for the devil and his angels: not being any longer hated by men, but rejected by God, and cast out from His presence.

For of such a one our Lord declared, saying: “Whosoever shall deny me before men, and shall be ashamed of my name, I also will deny and be ashamed of him before my Father which is in heaven.” And again He speaks thus to us ourselves, His disciples: “He that loveth father or mother more than me, is not worthy of me; and he that loveth son or daughter more than me, is not worthy of me; and he that taketh not his cross, and followeth after me, is not worthy of me. He that findeth his life, shall lose it; and he that loseth his life for my sake, shall find it. For what is a man profited, if he shall gain the whole world, and lose his own soul? or what shall a man give in exchange for his soul?” And afterwards: “Fear not them that kill the body, but are not able to kill the soul; but rather fear Him who is able to destroy both soul and body in hell.” (5.1.4)

And a little later:

Let us therefore renounce our parents, and kinsmen, and friends, and wife, and children, and possessions, and all the enjoyments of life, when any of these things become an impediment to piety. For we ought to pray that we may not enter into temptation; but if we be called to martyrdom, with constancy to confess His precious name, and if on this account we be punished, let us rejoice, as hastening to immortality. When we are persecuted, let us not think it strange; let us not love the present world, nor the praises which come from men, nor the glory and honour of rulers, according as some of the Jews wondered at the mighty works of our Lord, yet did not believe on Him, for fear of the high priests and the rest of the rulers: “For they loved the praise of men more than the praise of God.”

But now, by confessing a good confession, we not only save ourselves, but we confirm those who are newly illuminated, and strengthen the faith of the catechumens. But if we remit any part of our confession, and deny godliness by the faintness of our persuasion, and the fear of a very short punishment, we not only deprive ourselves of everlasting glory, but we shall also become the causes of the perdition of others; and shall suffer double punishment, as affording suspicion, by our denial that that truth which we gloried in so much before is an erroneous doctrine.

Wherefore neither let us be rash and hasty to thrust ourselves into dangers, for the Lord says: “Pray that ye fall not into temptation: the spirit indeed is willing, but the flesh is weak.” Nor let us, when we do fall into dangers, be fearful or ashamed of our profession. Nor let us, when we do fall into dangers, be fearful or ashamed of our profession. For if a person, by the denial of his own hope, which is Jesus the Son of God, should be delivered from a temporary death, and the next day should fall dangerously sick upon his bed, with a distemper in his bowels, his stomach, or his head, or any of the incurable diseases, as a consumption, or gangrene, or looseness, or iliac passion, or dropsy, or colic, and has a sudden catastrophe, and departs this life; is not he deprived of the things present, and loses those eternal? Or rather, he is within the verge of eternal punishment, “and goes into outer darkness, where is weeping and gnashing of teeth.” (5.1.6)

The quotes speak for themselves. Let’s not deny Christ, fearing the temporary, and thus lose the eternal.

If you want to read more from the Apostolic Constitutions, check out my post on the early church teaching that continued obedience after baptism is necessary for salvation.

Necessity of Continued Obedience for Salvation (Apostolic Constitutions)

I want to share a series of quotations from the so-named Apostolic Constitutions, compiled and written in the 4th century. The quotations below are based upon an earlier work, the Didascalia Apostolorum from sometime around 230 AD. (Read more at the Wikipedia page and at the Catholic Encyclopedia.)

All of these excepts deal with the importance of continued obedience after conversion.

Much of my early church reading has recently been limited to the Apostolic Fathers, which reflect the earliest Christian sources we have outside scripture. There is clear and compelling evidence in these writings that the earliest Christians believed and taught that believers have to persevere in faith and holy living in order to inherit eternal life. In other words, the early church (in agreement with scripture) didn’t hold to the modern teaching of “eternal security.” Although a slightly later document, the Apostolic Constitutions confirms that the early church continued to confirm the necessity of perseverance for salvation.

This first quotation comes from the opening paragraphs of the first book. The writer makes it clear that those Christians, “ye children of God,” who live disobediently will be considered as “heathen” by God—clearly a stark warning.

Take care, ye children of God, to do all things in obedience to God; and in all things please Christ our Lord. For if any man follows unrighteousness, and does those things that are contrary to the will of God, such a one will be esteemed by God as the disobedient heathen.  (1.1.0)

It goes on to list specific moral instructions, paired with warnings for the unrepentant Christian. Specifically those living in immorality are “condemned by our Lord Jesus Christ” and that “eternal death will overtake thee from God.” This is not the typical language from a Sunday sermon, but good guidance nonetheless.

For he that covets his neighbour’s wife, or his man-servant, or his maid-servant, is already in his mind an adulterer and a thief; and if he does not repent, is condemned by our Lord Jesus Christ (1.1.1)

For if thou art overcome by her, and sinnest with her, eternal death will overtake thee from God; and thou wilt be punished with sensible and bitter torments. (1.2.0)

Baptism was held in very high regard in the early church—much more seriously than in most churches today. After receiving baptism, any Christian obstinately sinning and refusing to repent was considered eternally lost.

Beloved, be it known to you that those who are baptized into the death of our Lord Jesus are obliged to go on no longer in sin; for as those who are dead cannot work wickedness any longer, so those who are dead with Christ cannot practice wickedness. We do not therefore believe, brethren, that anyone who has received the washing of life continues in the practice of the licentious acts of transgressors. Now he who sins after his baptism, unless he repent and forsake his sins, shall be condemned to hell-fire. (2.3.7)

This last quotation considers the spiritual dangers for a previously pure Christian now experimenting with sin. The danger, according to the excerpt below, is that we don’t know when we will die. If we decide to slide a bit and live in sin, who knows if today is our last day? Once we die, there is no more room for repentance. We will be like the five foolish virgins who were not ready for the bridegroom’s return and were “shut-out of the bride-chamber.” If we are living in sin when Jesus returns or when we die, there is no room for confession and consequently forgiveness of sins.

Yet it is very necessary that those who are yet innocent should continue so, and not make an experiment what sin is, that they may not have occasion for trouble, sorrow, and those lamentations which are in order to forgiveness. For how dost thou know, O man, when thou sinnest, whether thou shalt live any number of days in this present state, that thou mayest have time to repent? For the time of thy departure out of this world is uncertain; and if thou diest in sin, there will remain no repentance for thee; as God says by David, “In the grave who will confess to Thee?”

It behoves us, therefore, to be ready in the doing of our duty, that so we may await our passage into another world without sorrow. Wherefore also the Divine Word exhorts, speaking to thee by the wise Solomon, “Prepare thy works against thy exit, and provide all beforehand in the field,” lest some of the things necessary to thy journey be wanting; as the oil of piety was deficient in the five foolish virgins mentioned in the Gospel, when they, on account of their having extinguished their lamps of divine knowledge, were shut out of the bride-chamber.

Wherefore he who values the security of his soul will take care to be out of danger, by keeping free from sin, that so he may preserve the advantage of his former good works to himself. (2.3.13)

The last sentence of the above excerpt (at least in this English translation) does mention the security of the believer. However, in this instance, the soul’s security is contingent on “keeping free from sin.” Otherwise the past life of obedience through faith is of no benefit.

There are several more quotes from the Apostolic Constitution that I may post later, dealing with martyrdom and the importance of confessing Christ, rather than denying Him.

The sheer amount of quotes that speak to this subject of obedience and perseverance is too much to convey in a single post, or several for that matter. Having an historically informed understanding of Christian teaching can only deepen our analysis of scripture and understanding of how modern doctrines have developed over time.

The Prize is Immortality and Eternal Life (Ignatius to Polycarp)

In one of my recent posts, I discussed how the “crown of life” mentioned in James and Revelations is a way of describing eternal life itself. The “crown of life” is the “crown that is life.” Those who persevere in their faith receive this prize—eternal life.

When we study the earliest church fathers, this teaching that eternal life itself is the Christian’s reward is reinforced.

One such instance is the following quote from Ignatius in his letter to Polycarp. Both Ignatius and Polycarp were students of the Apostle John. They were directly exposed and taught from John himself. As such, their writings help us understand how the earliest Christians understood and interpreted scripture. This particular letter of Ignatius was written to Polycarp, the Bishop of Smyrna, as Ignatius was being taken to Rome, where he would eventually be martyred.

Ignatius writes:

The times call for you, as pilots do for the winds, and as one tossed with tempest seeks for the haven, so that both you [and those under your care] may attain to God. Be sober as an athlete of God: the prize set before you is immortality and eternal life, of which you are also persuaded. (Ignatius to Polycarp; 2. 3; Roberts and Donaldson) 

The prize of the Christian athlete is immortality and eternal life. This prize is not behind us according to Ignatius, but set before us.  It is something we strive for as we seek to “attain to God.”

This quotation reminds us of Paul’s statement to the Corinthian church:

Do you not know that those who run in a race all run, but only one receives the prize? Run in such a way that you may win. Everyone who competes in the games exercises self-control in all things. They then do it to receive a perishable wreath, but we an imperishable. Therefore I run in such a way, as not without aim; I box in such a way, as not beating the air; but I discipline my body and make it my slave, so that, after I have preached to others, I myself will not be disqualified. (1 Cor. 9:24-27)

Ignatius was encouraging Polycarp with the same teaching that Paul himself wrote here to the Corinthians. Paul admonishes us to run the race in order to win the prize. The prize is an imperishable wreath, a reference to immortality (and which also seems to be another way of saying the “crown of life”).

Ignatius, knowing Paul’s intent, doesn’t even bother to use an analogy when describing the reward. He comes out and says plainly that the prize is eternal life. It is immortality.

This is just another tidbit that helps us have an informed, historical perspective of the early church teaching regarding salvation, perseverance, and completing the journey of faith.


Ignatius quotation translated by Alexander Roberts and James Donaldson. From Ante-Nicene Fathers, Vol. 1. Edited by Alexander Roberts, James Donaldson, and A. Cleveland Coxe. (Buffalo, NY: Christian Literature Publishing Co., 1885.)

Early Church Teaching on Abortion

Abortion has been a hot political topic in the United States for many years.

Especially in Western culture, where Christianity historically has had influence, it can appear at first glance to be a purely modern, politicized debate. Those arguing for the “right” of a woman to abort her child, frame the issue as one of progress. They argue that our society should be unshackled of old-fashioned morals and brought into a more enlightened future.

This, of course, is utter nonsense.

When we study history, it becomes quickly clear that abortion and infanticide (essentially abandoning babies) were both common practices during the first couple centuries. Abortion is not some progressive ideal unknown to ancient society. The Roman Empire was thoroughly secular, although not in the modern atheistic sense. Living conditions for the average citizen was quite poor and degrading. The cultural sexual mores were not yet positively influenced by Christian teaching. Consequently, it is little surprise that abortion was quite commonly practiced, just as it is today.

Everett Ferguson expounds upon this in Backgrounds of Early Christianity:

The Hellenistic world lived under the shadow of too many mouths to feed. This fact meant that many children were abandoned, exposed to die. W. W. Tarn has presented evidence that from 230 B.C. onward, the one-child family was commonest in Greece. Families of four or five children were very rare.  […] The answer to overpopulation was infanticide. Abortions were often attempted, but not infrequently were fatal to the mother; they were made illegal under Septimius Severus. More frequent was the exposure of the newborn child. The unwanted child was simply left to die on a the trash heap or in some isolated place.  (Ferguson, 80-81)

He goes on to explain that Greek and Roman society did not consider a newborn as a legitimate family member until the father accepted the baby into the family. “Thus,” Ferguson writes, “they did not consider exposure murder but the refusal to admit to society.”

These secular attitudes towards newborn children stood in stark contrast with Jewish and Christian teachings. The early church, in agreement with Judaism, strongly prohibited aborting or abandoning children.

The early Christian document known as the Didache (50-70 AD), listing the basic rules of Christian practice, includes both acts as completely impermissible:

The second commandment of the teaching is: You shall not murder; you shall not commit adultery; you shall not corrupt children; you shall not be sexually immoral; you shall not steal; you shall not practice magic; you shall not engage in sorcery; you shall not abort a child or commit infanticide. (Didache 2. 1,2; Holmes, 3rd Ed.; bold mine)

History is not on a continuum from ignorance to progressive “wisdom.” Just like today, abortion was commonly practiced in Greek and Roman society. It was only later, influenced by Christian teachings which truly valued children, that Western practices and views gradually shifted.

Formerly Christian societies have seen a resurgence in these ancient sins while Christian faith has simultaneously declined. This, of course, is no surprise. Jesus told us that in the last days “most people’s love will grow cold.” (Matthew 24:12) Even a parent’s heart for their child.

Beware of the Christ-merchant! (Didache 12:5)

I came across this fascinating passage from the Didache (50-70 AD), possibly the earliest Christian document we have outside the New Testament. It gives guidance to the church on how to treat itinerant Christian teachers and evangelists passing through the area, as well as what to do if they decide to settle down.

Everyone who comes in the name of the Lord is to be welcomed. But then examine him, and you will find out—for you will have insight—what is true and what is false. If the one who comes is merely passing through, assist him as much as you can. But he must not stay with you for more than two or, if necessary, three days. However, if he wishes to settle among you and is a craftsman, let him work for his living. But if he is not a craftsman, decide according to your own judgment how he shall live among you as a Christian, yet without being idle. But if he does not wish to cooperate in this way, then he is trading on Christ. Beware of such people. (Didache 12.; Holmes, 3rd Ed.)

Christians are to show hospitality by welcoming fellow believers, helping them out as much as they can. This assumes the travelers are only staying in town for a couple days. If the stay is any longer than that, they must work for their living.

This advice is completely scriptural. Paul himself taught the Thessalonian church that people should work if at all able, rather than rely on others. He writes in 2 Thessalonians 3:10, “For even when we were with you, we used to give you this order: if anyone is not willing to work, then he is not to eat, either.” For those that have families to support, Paul elsewhere writes, “If anyone does not provide for his own, and especially for those of his household, he has denied the faith and is worse than an unbeliever.” (1 Timothy 5:8)

However, it’s the second-to-last sentence that really caught my attention, “But if he does not wish to cooperate in this way, then he is trading on Christ.” The last phrase, “trading on Christ,” is a unique one-word construction in the original Greek (christempros; χριστέμπρός), combining the Greek word for Christ (Christos; Χριστός) and merchant/trader (emporos; ἔμπορος). It could be translated “Christ-merchant” or “Christ-mongor.” It essentially means one who is peddling Christ for profit. A “Christ-merchant” is one using Christ for their own material gain.

Keep in mind, this was written very early, possibly earlier than some of our New Testament epistles. Even at this point, before Christianity became a state-religion under Emperor Constantine, people were abusing the gospel for wealth. Not much has changed in two thousand years, has it? I’ve written about biblical tithing and giving before, because it’s an important topic that many pastors shy away from teaching in clear terms.

People start “Christian” ministries all the time to get rich, and it was no different back then. Although we live in a completely different time and culture, somethings don’t change. If someone wishes to be financially supported by other Christians, but refuses to work for a living, they are a Christ-merchant. “Beware of such people.”

A Typical Church Service in the Second Century

Several weeks ago I published a series of posts on the biblical understanding of tithing and giving.  (You can read them here: Part 1Part 2 & Part 3). I discussed how the early Christian church collected funds specifically for the purpose of redistributing back to those in need. We read about this in Acts 2:44-45 and Acts 4:32-35.

This practice continued to go on well into the second century, as evidenced by the writings of Justin Martyr, a major Christian apologist during the second century. The following is an except from his First Apology, and in it Justin describes a typical church service.

And on the day called Sunday, all who live in cities or in the country gather together to one place, and the memoirs of the apostles or the writings of the prophets are read, as long as time permits; then, when the reader has ceased, the president verbally instructs, and exhorts to the imitation of these good things.

Then we all rise together and pray, and, as we before said, when our prayer is ended, bread and wine and water are brought, and the president in like manner offers prayers and thanksgivings, according to his ability, and the people assent, saying Amen; and there is a distribution to each, and a participation of that over which thanks have been given, and to those who are absent a portion is sent by the deacons.

And they who are well to do, and willing, give what each thinks fit; and what is collected is deposited with the president, who succours [uses it to help] the orphans and widows and those who, through sickness or any other cause, are in want, and those who are in bonds and the strangers sojourning among us, and in a word takes care of all who are in need. (The Ante-Nicene Fathers, Vol. I, Justin Martyr’s First Apology, Chapter LXVII.)

The typical meeting consisted of (1) the reading of scripture, (2) a teaching/exhortation related to what was just read, (3) communal prayers, (4) the partaking of communion, (5) and the giving of donations by well-off members as they saw fit. These donations were then given to orphans, widows, prisoners, foreigners, and anyone else in need.

This was written around 155 AD, showing the continued practice of giving collected funds to the needy. It did not cease to be practiced for more than one hundred years after Jesus ascended into heaven, which shows remarkable consistency.

I’ve said it before. Churches should show more serious intention to follow scripture and the example demonstrated by the early church. Love for money inhibits the church from fully functioning as the body of Christ. When financial abuses occur by churches and church leaders (and they do occur), this blasphemes the name of God. As Jesus said, “you cannot serve both God and money.” (Matthew 6:24) As our country contracts economically and people struggle to make ends meet, this will become increasingly important.

The other aspects of corporate worship may sound familiar. Some Christian denominations still have a public reading from scripture, although it seems to be conspicuously absent from your typical evangelical service. To be fair, public reading had even greater need then, as access to scripture was much more limited than today. Illiteracy was common among the poor, and the cost to copy manuscripts was much more prohibitive.

The rest mentioned by Justin—the teachings, prayer, and communion—still occur in churches today, with variation in the particulars. He does not mention musical worship in this excerpt, although we know that “hymns and spiritual songs” are mentioned by Paul in scripture (Ephesians 5:19). Obviously, the concert style of worship music now would be altogether foreign to these early Christians.

Of course, this description is not scripture. There is no command that a church needs to be conducted in this particular way. However, if we understand where the church came from, it can free us from traditional expectations that aren’t found in scripture. It can free us to worship in ways that spiritually edify the church and bring glory to Jesus.

Unless Found Perfect: A Parallel Passage in the Didache and Epistle of Barnabas

There is a strong parallel phrase between the Didache (50-70 AD) and the Epistle of Barnabas (90-131 AD), two very early Christian writings found in the modern collection known as the Apostolic Fathers.

In anticipation of the last days and the return of Jesus, the Didache emphasizes the necessity of being found perfect or complete in the last days, otherwise our past faith will “be of no use.”

Watch over your life: do not let your lamps go out, and do not be unprepared, but be ready, for you do not know the hour when our Lord is coming. Gather together frequently, seeking the things that benefit your souls, for all the time you have believed will be of no use to you if you are not found perfect in the last time. (Didache 16. 1,2; Holmes, 3rd Ed.)

In the 1912 Loeb edition, Kirsopp Lake translates the last passage as, “for the whole time of your faith shall not profit you except ye be found perfect at the last time.”

Similar language is used in the Epistle of Barnabas when talking of the last days:

Consequently, let us be on guard in the last days, for the whole time of our faith will do us no good unless now, in the age of lawlessness, we also resist, as befits God’s children, the coming stumbling blocks, lest the black one find an opportunity to sneak in. (Barnabas 4. 9b; Holmes, 3rd Ed.)

Both are directly speaking of the importance of continued spiritual soberness in the last days.  The Greek has almost identical wording in both passages where it says “for the whole time of your/our faith will do you/us no good unless [now] in the last/lawless time […].”

Didache:    οὐ       γὰρ ὠφελήσει ὑμᾶς ὁ πᾶς χρόνος τῆς πίστεως ὑμῶν, ἐὰν μὴ        ἐν τῷ ἐσχάτῳ καιρῷ […]
Barnabas: οὐδὲν γὰρ ὠφελήσει ἡμᾶς ὁ πᾶς χρόνος τῆς πίστεως ἡμῶν, ἐὰν μὴ νῦν ἐν τῷ ἀνόμῳ καιρῷ […]

There is no doubt that there either was a common source that both quoted from, or Barnabas borrowed here from the Didache. Regardless, the teaching that we need to be found faithful at the end was a common teaching present among the earliest believers. The eternal state of a Christian was not strictly viewed only as a simple profession of past faith, but in terms of continued faithfulness and endurance up until the end of our life.

Eventually I may take the time and effort to complete a comprehensive survey of this teaching in the earliest non-canonical Christian writings, but until then this is just one morsel of early Christian thought to chew on.

Introducing the Apostolic Fathers

Imagine for a moment you could get inside the mind of the earliest Christians.  Christians that were alive when the apostles were still with us.  Christians who were directly taught by those who knew Jesus in the flesh.  We’ll never have a perfect understanding of those believers from almost 2,000 years ago, but we do have letters, sermons, and other writings penned by these early Christ followers.  These were not unorthodox teachings of the Gnostic heretics, but from genuine believers, some of whom were appointed by Apostles to oversee the church in their city.

These early Christian writings, all from 70 A.D. through 150 A.D., are commonly referred to as the Apostolic Fathers.  Don’t let the name confuse you.  These were not the writings of the Apostles themselves, but rather those church fathers who closely followed the Apostles in leading the church, namely Clement of Rome, Ignatius, and Polycarp.  Additional writings included in this collection are from the same time period, although not associated with any known church leader.  These would include 2 Clement, the Didache, the Shephard of Hermas, and several others.

You don’t need to be a scholar to read and appreciate the Apostolic Fathers.  In fact, many of Ignatius’ letters are so short you could read them in one sitting.  There are English translations available online for free (see links on my Early Christianity page).  If you want a hard copy, there’s several options for online purchase.  I personally favor the edition edited and translated by Michael B. Holmes, which includes both the Greek on the left side and an English translation on the right. There’s also a slightly cheaper version with just the English translation available.

In a typical evangelical church, most Christians are not familiar with the Apostolic Fathers. Those with a seminary degree may have a cursory knowledge, but I think it is fair to say that there is a high level of ignorance when it comes to the teachings of the early church.  Yet, many modern Christian authors are highly regarded and their books frequently read.  If we value these teachers who are so far removed from the cultural background and direct influence of the Apostles, how much more should we value those teachings from those who were so intimately aware of the apostolic teachings both in written form and in oral testimony.  They will only serve to deepen our faith and understanding of scripture itself.

Take 15 minutes, and read a couple pages in your spare time. You’ll find the testimony of those early Christians like Ignatius and Polycarp who suffered and died for Christ is a strong encouragement for us as our world gets spiritually darker.