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Heresies in the Early Church

Heresy is the term used for an unacceptable doctrine, but what one person feels is unacceptable many be perfectly satisfactory to others. What makes it heretical is almost always the fact that it is a minority view. In the case of Christianity many heresies center upon the nature of God or of the incarnate Christ. Much of the doctrinal writings that today’s Christians are so familiar with were originally put together in order to refute what the church considered to be heretical ideas e. g. the Nicene Creed. In fact, in ‘Introducing the New Testament ‘John Drane says :-

The single most important factor that led to the development of a well- organized and disciplined church in the second century was the emergence of heresy of various kinds. Drane goes on to say that it was very easy for someone to claim, or even believe, that his own ideas were Spirit led. It was extremely difficult for others to prove that this was not the case. In 2nd Corinthians 11 Paul comes out strongly against those whom he called ‘false apostles’, deceitful workmen, and as masquerading as apostles.

In Galatians1 v 6 Paul was writing to the churches of Galatia in order to counteract what he believed was a false gospel. The problems did not go away. In Ist John 4 the readers are advised to test the spirits and the writer describes how many false prophets were about. Paul did not go to the lengths of second century church leaders who excluded those felt to have false ideas. In his short letter Jude does not describe the beliefs of heretics at any length, but does make mention of ‘godless men’ who deny Christ.

In its earliest days the church was of course a sect of Judaism and was considered by many Jews to be a sect – which is of course why it was opposed so often, as is recorded by its earliest historian Luke in the Book of Acts. Even Paul himself was almost killed by Jews who thought him to be a heretic e. g. in Thessalonica and in Jerusalem . These references are included to show how a minority view, and Christians were at that time very much a minority, will always be considered to be wrong and how those who hold those minority views where religion is concerned are considered to be heretics.

As the church expanded it spread far beyond the bounds of Judaism and of Israel of course, but from the time of Peter’s vision he realised that non Jews could also be part of the church. This of course related back to the Great Commission in Matthew 28 v 18 ‘Go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. ’ By the second century the church was forced to think very carefully about its beliefs, its worship practices and its system of authority in order to remain true to the ideals laid down by Christ and the apostles.

In worship for instance, as long as it seemed that all were inspired by the same Spirit all could participate in worship services, but this freedom could be used to advantage by heretics who made the same claims. The Docetists were an early sect who taught that Jesus only ‘seemed’ to actually live in the flesh. This was of course in total opposition to the Christian belief in God incarnate. They took their name from the Greek dekeo, to appear. They stressed the divinity of Christ at the expense of any humanity.

Their beliefs are described in II John v 7 ‘Many deceivers, who do not acknowledge Jesus Christ as coming in the flesh , have gone out into the world. ’ Also in the book of Revelations, written at the end of the 1st century, in the second chapter we have mention of those who followed Balaam. Balaam of course sold his religion for money. A prophetess Jezebel is mentioned among others. It is not known exactly what these people taught, but it certainly included idol worship.

Jezebel is said to have taught ’the deep secrets of Satan’ a phrase that appears in later Gnostic writings as a description of their ideas. There is mention in verse 16 of the Nicolaitans. These took their name from two words, Nikao and Laos . The first refers to having the upper hand or being a conqueror and the second refers to the congregations. The Nicolaitans exercised great authority over their congregations and introduced many lascivious practices. John 3 v 9-11 seems to refer to such a person who refused to allow the church members to receive the disciples and spoke out against them.

In order to better deal with these problems and for other reasons gradually leading worship fell into the hands of a few, and this of course eventually led to the ordination process as we now have it. In Ist Timothy we have the owning of spiritual gifts alongside the process of ordination. Socialist Max Weber is quoted by John Drane as saying that after the death of a leader who inspired them there will be changes and eventually institutionalization as the group tries to accommodate their founder’s teaching alongside the cares of everyday life.

This was not a rapid change, but took place over 2-3 hundred years. These changes didn’t stop new ideas, but at least they could be assessed against an agreed and tested standard. Up to this point many stories would have been passed on orally, but the new groups such as the Gnostics had their own literature such as the ‘Gospel of Thomas’ and ‘Gospel of Truth’ This led to the church having to decide just which books were the most truthful, helpful an inspired and this led eventually to the formation of the New Testament as we now have it.

This was not a one off decision, but took place gradually over a period of about a century. Men such as Justin Martyr, Melito, bishop in Sardis and Theophilus of Antioch wrote at length defending orthodox Christian beliefs against the pagan ideas in the world around it as well as those that sought to invade it.

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