Defending the Faith: The fall of the early Christian church was almost inevitable

Published: Thursday, April 25 2013 5:00 a.m. MDT

A spotlight illuminates the icon of the Apostle John discovered with other paintings in a catacomb located under a modern office building in a residential neighborhood of Rome.

Pier Paolo Cito, Associated Press

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The church founded anciently by Christ not only didn’t survive intact but probably couldn’t have. Ancient means of communication weren’t up to the task.

Within a remarkably short time, Christianity had expanded beyond Palestine — to Anatolia and Greece, to Rome and Italy, to Spain, eastward into Armenia and Mesopotamia and across Egypt and North Africa. It had covered vast distances, largely due to the “Pax Romana,” the “Roman peace,” and the impressive system of Roman roads that had been constructed to ease the movement of the Roman legions across the empire. So secure were the Romans that what we now call the Mediterranean they typically called “Mare Nostrum,” “Our Sea.”

But travel and communications were still, by our standards, extremely slow. The “supply lines” of ancient Christianity were long, fragile, corruptible and dangerously exposed to persecution, human sin and ambition, misunderstanding, forgetfulness and a host of other threats.

To make things still worse, for at least the first century of Christianity (and, in sense, for much longer than that), there was no New Testament. It was still being written over the initial 30 to 70 years after the ascension of Christ, and, even when they were complete, individual gospels and epistles circulated separately; the “New Testament” hadn’t yet been gathered together, and the canon hadn’t yet been defined.

Even after they had been written and put into circulation, copies of scriptural texts, expensive and hand-produced, were extremely rare. Ordinary Christians wouldn’t have had their own private copies of scripture, let alone several of them, as we often do today. (Many of them likely couldn’t read, anyhow.)

In fact, most branches of the church, even whole regions, would probably have had little or nothing in the way of scriptural manuscripts. And those privileged church congregations that possessed, say, part of a gospel or one of Paul’s epistles, might have had nothing else.

Thus, local leaders, who perhaps joined the church after only the briefest of missionary instruction — commonly at the hands of preachers who, themselves, had received no more than a brief oral introduction to the basic Christian story and a few fundamental doctrines — would have had no scriptures to consult, let alone anything like a “general handbook of instructions” when difficult questions arose. And teachers and class members were unable to simply flip through their personal copies of the Bible in order to learn Christian doctrine and practice.

It’s literally a miracle that Christianity survived as well as it did.

But what did leaders do when a crisis or a dilemma arose? While the apostles lived, inquiries or requests for help could perhaps be sent to them. But at any given time, it might be almost impossible to know where they were. Rome? Athens? Prison? Dead? Unlike the government of Rome, the ancient apostles had no permanent fixed headquarters. And how long would it take to get a response from one of them?

A local problem might fester for weeks, months or perhaps even years before local leadership sought apostolic advice. (Let’s leave out of consideration the many cases in which the local leadership, or perhaps an entire branch or region, was itself the problem.) Then, even when the apostle’s location was known, it might require several weeks or months to get an inquiry to him. He would, of course, need time to prayerfully consider the matter and then several weeks or months would be needed for his response to reach those who had inquired.

Turnaround time, in other words, likely would have run into months, and perhaps many of them. That allows plenty of opportunity for problems to become insuperable.

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