The early church leaders built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets.
When the apostle John died, the Christian church entered a new era. As news of John’s passing from grace to glory spread by voice, messenger, and letter, it likely did not come as a great surprise. Reliable tradition suggests that John apparently had reached at least his 90s, perhaps passed his hundredth year. He who had run to Jesus’ empty tomb later needed to be carried into church.
But he still served and led. He also wrote in his last years, penning his gospel, three epistles, and Revelation, the record of the vision Jesus gave him of triumphant heaven. Tradition has it that John died in Ephesus where he lived his last decades, except for time on the island of Patmos. The Roman government exiled him there because of “the word of God and the testimony of Jesus” (Revelation 1:9). But now the disciple whom Jesus loved was home with Jesus.
A different age
If his death prompted surprise, it might have been that John was the only one of Jesus’ apostles who did not die a martyr’s death. But those John left behind may not have lingered long on that thought. After John’s death, now for the first time—70 or so years after Pentecost—Christians had to face life and live faith without an apostle to lead them.
The men who had walked with Jesus no longer walked the earth. From the first days of the Christian church, the apostles had said with Peter and John, “We cannot help speaking about what we have seen and heard” (Acts 4:20). Many decades later John still said, “We proclaim to you what we have seen and heard” (1 John 1:3). Now Christians would somehow survive without those who had “seen and heard” the facts of their faith—Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection.
What’s more, this new normal dawned at a difficult time. Persecutions—experienced already early in the apostles’ day—also now threatened those who believed in Jesus. It would get worse before it got better. Mercifully, the faithful of John’s day did not know that the persecution would last more than two hundred years until Rome’s Emperor Constantine officially sanctioned Christianity.
And, just as false teachings—poisonous mixtures of law and gospel, claims of knowledge higher than the simple “foolishness” of the gospel, denials of truth essential to salvation—endangered souls early in the church’s story, soon would come other heresies, especially wrong ideas about the triune God and particularly about God’s Son, Jesus. All this, and without an apostle to pastor the believers.
Same truths, new leaders
But they were not orphans. They did have leaders; history would call them “church fathers.” At first, they were men who had known the men who had known Jesus. Later they were men trained by the first fathers. More important, they all studied and taught the Word of God—the Old Testament and now the writings of the apostles, their gospels. The history of the early church—its setbacks and successes—was there in Acts. The letters of Paul, Peter, and, yes, John, as well as the other writings that the Holy Spirit had inspired, were in their hands and, like all Scripture, were “useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness” (2 Timothy 3:16). Every good thing that the early church did in the first generations after the apostles was commanded or modeled in the New Testament record.
Those early Christians gathered to form congregations wherever believers could be found. Locally, pastors, deacons, elders, and others served as leaders. Scripture and history underline their value in ways still precious in our flocks. From Paul’s letters to Timothy, we see his protégé holding broader responsibility as an overseer—a bishop, one who had responsibility for a number of congregations. That role continued in the days after John and Timothy, filled by men like Ignatius, Polycarp, Clement of Rome, and Pappias of Hierapolis. They served as overseers—not bosses but shepherds, counselors, and role models, leaders in this perilous time.
The very existence of men like these leaders, whether local or regional, meant that the church had carried out Paul’s advice to Timothy, “The things you have heard me say in the presence of many witnesses entrust to reliable people who will also be qualified to teach others” (2 Timothy 2:2). Ignatius, Polycarp, and Pappias had all been students of John, and Clement likely knew Peter. They in turn had pupils and protégés—spiritual grandsons, great-grandsons, and further descendants of the apostles who soldiered for the faith in later centuries. By the Spirit’s Word and power, these reliable people produced more reliable people.
Roughly two hundred years later, the historian Eusebius gathered the facts of these times from the stories and records that survived. He and others like him (Irenaeus stands out) give us a sense of their day. Probably already before John died, there appeared a little book called the Didache—Greek for “teaching” and short for “The Teaching of the Twelve Apostles.” It served as an introduction for new Christians to life in the church. Epistles or letters from these church fathers who faithfully conveyed the truth of God served to encourage and admonish individuals and congregations.
Clement wrote twice—this sounds familiar—to the congregation in Corinth, addressing problems there. Later Justin Martyr staunchly defended the faith against false teachers. The Shepherd of Hermas, a book of visions and parables, was highly regarded for centuries, though its author is unknown. Other writers wrote down records of inspiring stories of Christians’ faithful lives and brave martyr deaths, encouragements by example in this difficult, dangerous time.
These scholar leaders chose their words carefully, striving to say clearly what Scripture said—no more and no less—about God and people, sin and grace, law and gospel. In days not long after John, they shaped statements to speak the truth about God, phrases and unambiguous wording that some three centuries later found their way into the Apostles’ Creed, that familiar, brief declaration of who God is. Such statements and eventually the creed, as summaries of Scripture, helped instruct the young or new to faith, traveled compactly in Christians’ memories wherever they went and in whatever circumstances they landed, and comforted all in life and in death.
These leaders always turned back to Scripture, the record of the inspired prophets, apostles, and evangelists, to refresh their strength and contend for the truth. In short, the first generations of Christians after the apostles, by God’s grace, served not only to keep their own faith alive but also to pass it on to those who followed them. Our fathers and mothers in the faith lived the command the writer to the Hebrew Christians had written not long before, “Remember your leaders, who spoke the word of God to you. Consider the outcome of their way of life and imitate their faith” (Hebrews 13:7).
Now we remember them and consider and imitate in our own perilous time.
Author: Daniel Balge
Volume 108, Number 5
Issue: May 2021