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A History of the Orthodox Church

The Apostolic Church

Introduction | History | Doctrine

The Church as a Eucharistic Community | The First Persecutions and Martyrs
The Councils as the Manifestation of the Church Unity

The Apostolic Church

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 St Peter three thousand men and women were baptized, and the first Christian community at Jerusalem was formed.

Before long the members of the Jerusalem Church were scattered by the persecution which followed the stoning of St Stephen. 'Go forth therefore,' Christ had said, 'and make all nations My disciples' (Matthew xxviii, 19). Obedient to this command they preached wherever they went, at first to Jews, but before long to Gentiles also. Some stories of these Apostolic journeys are recorded by St Luke in the book of Acts; others are preserved in the tradition of the Church. Within an astonishingly short time small Christian communities had sprung up in all the main centres of the Roman Empire and even in places beyond the Roman frontiers.

The Church as a Eucharistic Community

The Empire through which these first Christian missionaries travelled was, particularly in its eastern part, an empire of cities. This determined the administrative structure of the primitive Church. The basic unit was the community in each city, governed by its own bishop; to assist the bishop there were presbyters or priests, and deacons. The surrounding countryside depended on the Church of the city. This pattern, with the threefold ministry of bishops, priests, and deacons, was already established in some places by the end of the first century. We can see it in the seven short letters which St lgnatius, the Bishop of Antioch, wrote about the year 107 as he travelled to Rome to be martyred. Ignatius laid emphasis upon two things in particular, the bishop and the Eucharist; he saw the Church as both hierarchical and sacramental. 'The bishop in each Church,' he wrote, 'presides in place of God.' 'Let no one do any of the things which concern the Church without the bishop ... Wherever the bishop appears, there let the people be, just as wherever Jesus Christ is, there is the Catholic Church.' And it is the bishop's primary and distinctive task to celebrate the Eucharist, 'the medicine of immortality'.

People today tend to think of the Church as a worldwide organization, in which each local body forms part of a larger and more inclusive whole. Ignatius did not look at the Church in this way. For him the local community is the Church. He thought of the Church as a Eucharistic society, which only realizes its true nature when it celebrates the Supper of the Lord, receiving His Body and Blood in the sacrament. But the Eucharist is something that 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. Therefore each local community, as it celebrates the Eucharist Sunday by Sunday, is the Church in its fullness.

The teaching of Ignatius has a permanent place in Orthodox tradition. Orthodoxy still thinks of the Church as a Eucharistic society, whose outward organization, however necessary, is secondary to its inner, sacramental life; and Orthodoxy still emphasizes the cardinal importance of the local community in the structure of the Church. To those who attend an Orthodox Pontifical Liturgy,' when the bishop stands at the beginning of the service in the middle of the church, surrounded by his flock, Ignatius of Antioch's idea of the bishop as the centre of unity in the local community will occur with particular vividness.
But besides the local community there is also the wider unity of the Church. This second aspect is developed in the writings of another martyr bishop, St Cyprian of Carthage (died 258). Cyprian saw all bishops as sharing in the one episcopate, yet sharing it in such a way that each possesses not a part but the whole. 'The episcopate,' he wrote, 'is a single whole, in which each bishop enjoys full possession. So is the Church a single whole, though it spreads far and wide into a multitude of churches as its fertility increases'. There are many churches but only one Church; many episcopi but only one episcopate.

The First Persecutions and Martyrs

There were many others in the first three centuries of the Church who like Cyprian and Ignatius ended their lives as martyrs. The persecutions, it is true, were often local in character and usually limited in duration. Yet although there were long periods when the Roman authorities extended to Christianity a large measure of toleration, the threat of persecution was always there, and Christians knew that at any time this threat could become a reality. The idea of martyrdom had a central place in the spiritual outlook of the early Christians. They saw their Church as founded upon blood - not only the blood of Christ but the blood of those 'other Christs', the martyrs. In later centuries when the Church became 'established' and no longer suffered persecution, the idea of martyrdom did not disappear, but it took other forms: the monastic life, for example, is often regarded by Greek writers as an equivalent to martyrdom. The same approach is found also in the west: take, for instance, a Celtic text - an Irish homily of the seventh century - which likens the ascetic life to the way of the martyr:

Now there are three kinds of martyrdom which are accounted as a Cross to a man, white martyrdom, green martyrdom, and red martyrdom. White martyrdom consists in a man's abandoning everything he loves for God's sake ... (Green martyrdom consists in this, that by means of fasting and labour he frees himself from his evil desires, or suffers toil in penance and repentance. Red martyrdom consists in the endurance of a Cross or death for Christ's sake.'

At many periods in Orthodox history the prospect of red martyrdom has been fairly remote, and the green and white forms prevail. Yet there have also been times, above all in this present century, when Orthodox and other Christians have once again been called to undergo martyrdom of blood.

The Councils as the Manifestation of the Church Unity

It was only natural that the bishops, who, as Cyprian emphasized, share in the one episcopate, should meet together in a council to discuss their common problems. Orthodoxy has always attached great importance to the place of councils in the life of the Church. It believes that the council is the chief organ whereby God has chosen to guide His people, and it regards the Catholic Church as essentially a conciliar Church. (Indeed, in Russian the same adjective soborry has the double sense of 'catholic' and 'conciliar', while the corresponding noun, sobor, means both 'church' and 'council'.) In the Church there is neither dictatorship nor individualism, but harmony and unanimity; its members remain free but not isolated, for they are united in love, in faith, and in sacramental communion. In a council, this idea of harmony and free unanimity can be seen worked out in practice. In a true council no single member arbitrarily imposes his wil1 upon the rest, but each consults with the others, and in this way they all freely achieve a 'common mind'. A council is a living embodiment of the essential nature of the Church.

The first council in the Church's history is described in Acts xv. Attended by the Apostles, it met at Jerusalem to decide how far Gentile converts should be subject to the Law of Moses. The Apostles, when they finally reached their decision, spoke in terms which in other circumstances might appear presumptuous: 'It seemed right to the Holy Spirit and to us ...' (Acts xv, 28 Later councils have ventured to speak with the same confidence An isolated individual may well hesitate to say, 'It seemed right to the Holy Spirit and to me'; but when gathered in council, the members of the Church can together claim an authority which individually none of them possesses.

The Council of Jerusalem, assembling as it did the leaders of the entire Church, was an exceptional gathering, for which there is no parallel until the Council of Nicaea in 325. But by Cyprian's time it had already become usual to hold local councils, attended by all the bishops in a particular civil province of the Roman Empire. A local council of this type normally met in the provincial capital, under the presidency of the bishop of the capital, who was given the title Metropolitan. As the third century proceeded, councils widened in scope and began to include bishops not from one but from several civil provinces. These larger gatherings tended to assemble in the chief cities of the Empire, such as Alexandria or Antioch; and so it came about that the bishops of certain great cities began to acquire an importance above the provincial Metropolitans. But for the time being nothing was decided about the precise status of these great sees. Nor during the third century itself did this continual expansion of councils reach its logical conclusion: as yet (apart from the Apostolic Council) there had only been local councils, of lesser or greater extent, but no 'general' council, formed of bishops from the whole Christian world, and claiming to speak in the name of the whole Church.

Webmaster Note: This page was retrieved from www.archive.org after decani.yunet.com went defunct following the Kosovo conflict. This page was originally created by monks at Decani Monastery in Kosovo. It has been slightly edited for inclusion on this site. Abridged, from Callistos Ware, The Orthodox Church, p. 12-16.