THE FIRST CENTURY
Before His ascension Christ commanded His followers to go to all the countries of the world and tell all the people what He had taught and what good news He had brought to mankind. How people did this during the first decades after Jesus’ ascension can be read in the Bible book called Acts. It appears from this Bible book that during the first few decades of their existence Christians considered themselves a Jewish sect. They kept following all the Jewish traditions that they were used to. It is probable that the Christians only detached themselves from Judaism after the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 A.D. There is little certainty to be had with regard to the first three centuries of the history of Christianity: there are hardly any archeological finds or reliable texts from those days. From what we do have it looks highly probable that during the first century Christians did not have any buildings of their own yet, no professional leaders or priests, no central ecclesiastical authority or any form of centralized government and no fixed set of doctrines that everybody had to stick to. Christianity was not propagated by professional preachers. Believers shared their religious convictions with relatives, friends and colleagues.
The idea that the apostle Peter traveled to Rome to become the leader of the new Church which was developing, as a successor of Jesus Christ, is not based on any text in the Bible or any reliable historical sources from the first century. Rome was indeed the first place where Christians were persecuted. Particularly by the emperor Nero after the big fire of Rome which raged during the night from 18 to 19 July 64. But this was an incident. In general it may be said that the Roman empire of the first century A.D. was a constitutional state with true religious liberty.
THE SECOND CENTURY
In this century the number of Christians greatly increased in all the countries around the Mediterranean. And Christianity began to attract more people from the better circles. This happened in spite of the fact that the persecution of Christians increased in intensity.
Also with regard to this century we have very little historical evidence. In the texts from the second century that are still extant we cannot find any indications that support the idea that the Church leaders in Rome played a more significant part than those who lived in other places. It seems probable that in this century Christians did not have churches yet, but came together in ordinary homes.
Christians who were well-educated and well acquainted with the Greek language, culture and philosophy began to publish texts in which they demonstrated that Christianity in no way clashed with what intelligent people thought reasonable and sensible. These people are now called apologists (defenders) of the Christian faith. They were particularly keen on proving that the great Christian doctrines were completely in agreement with the doctrines of great Greek philosophers like Plato and Aristotle.
In the second half of the century Christianity was first confronted with individuals and groups who preached ideas which were unacceptable in the eyes of the leaders of the Church. Around 150 A.D. a certain Marcion rejected everything in Christianity that was based on the Jewish religion, including all the Hebrew Scriptures. He was strongly influenced by another movement which opposed the majority of the Christians in the second century: the Gnostics. These claimed that they possessed a lot of secret knowledge which they had received from God and which commanded them to abstain from all forms of worldly, physical pleasures. The same sort of ideas were developed around 170 A.D. by Montanus, who stated that the holy spirit had told him to develop a kind of Christianity which emphasized the obeying of very strict rules of life. Montanism particularly disliked sexual intercourse.
In this century Christianity had to deal with a fierce internal struggle regarding the question whether Jesus Christ was a man or God or both. And within the circles who considered Christ as God there was an equally fierce debate about the question whether Jesus Christ and His Father were equals. Some scholars asserted than Jesus was subordinated to His Father. This kind of questions and the rise of “heretic” movements increased the need for more central authority and a clearer formulating and defining of which doctrines were Christian and which were not. All this led to the development of creeds: brief summaries of the main doctrines of Christianity. In the second century Christianity still had no people who held an official ecclesiastical office like that of our present-day priests and ministers.
THE THIRD CENTURY
As regards this century Church historians also have little or no reliable historical evidence. From the things which are still extant it may be concluded that Christianity began to adopt a number of, not very essential, matters from the religion of the Romans. Like their love of Greek philosophy. The discussion about which books were part of the God inspired Greek Scriptures and which were not was finished by the beginning of the century. Until the beginning of the fourth century the Church did not have any centralized authoritative institution which decided what Christians must believe and do. In the course of the decades the Roman Empire got weaker and Christianity got stronger. One of the results was that Christianity began to pose an increasingly strong threat for the Roman establishment and particularly during the second half of the century the persecution of Christians increased all over the Empire. Also in this century there were no anointed church officials who wore special clothes in their daily lives or during religious gatherings. Or who had to be unmarried. During this century Christians began to celebrate Easter on a large scale and in some regions people began to baptize infants. It is also during this age that the first monasteries appeared. Particularly in northern Africa, where the Christian religion was stricter than elsewhere. In the course of the century the number of Christians increased in all parts of the Empire. About 300 A.D. there were already regions where Christians were the majority. Some historians estimate that about 300 A.D. there were about 50 million people in the Roman Empire, of whom about 10 million were Christians. But: the early Christian Church had to pay a high price for this expansion in the form of thousands of martyrs who were killed in very cruel ways.
THE FOURTH CENTURY
At the start of the century Christians were a persecuted minority, at the end Christianity was the official state-religion of the Roman Empire. In 312 A.D. the Roman Emperor Constantine was converted to Christianity. In 313 he declared the Christian faith an officially accepted religion. About the middle of the century the Roman religion was forbidden and by the end of the century Christianity was the compulsory faith of all the inhabitants of the Empire. By that time Christianity had become an organization which the worldly authorities widely supported with things like money, land and materials for the building of the first churches. The result was an almost complete merging of Church and state: for many centuries Constantine and his successors held a strong position of power within the Christian Church.
--- The big question is of course: what did Christianity have to do in the third and fourth centuries to cause a society that at first felt such enmity towards it to change its attitude and to start accepting and admiring its ideas. It is certain that very intelligent and well-educated Christians played an important role in this development. They succeeded in convincing Roman society that the generally accepted ideas from Greek philosophy in no way clashed with the teachings of Christianity. In addition the Church of those days adopted a lot of popular customs from Roman society and Roman religion and transformed them into Christian customs. Thus they made the Roman day of the sun the holy day of Christianity and they made the Roman midwinter celebrations Christmas. In addition the Church replaced Greek by Latin as the official language of the Church community. From the Roman administrative machinery the Church adopted a better ordered and more hierarchical structure. And from the Roman elite a positive attitude towards power and wealth. In short: the great triumph of Christianity did not just happen of itself.
---In the first centuries of its existence Christianity was anything but a centrally governed international organization with a central authoritative institution that told Christians what to believe and what to do. This situation caused a continuous threat for the unity within the Church. For many centuries there was a great deal of division of opinion with regard to the question whether Jesus was God or a man or both. The followers of Arius defended the opinion that the Bible clearly demonstrates that the Father has created the Son and that as a result the Son is a created being who owes His existence to His Father. Arius also taught that the Son is subordinate to His Father and has to obey Him. To end this division within the Christian Church the emperor Constantine summoned Church leaders from all parts of the Empire to attend a general conference at Nicaea (situated in what is now southern Turkey). This led to the first ecumenical (general) council in the history of the Church: the council of Nicaea in 325 A.D. This conference of Church leaders ruled that the Father and Jesus Christ share the same divine nature. In short: Jesus is fully divine, fully God. Discussions regarding the nature and the essence of the holy spirit eventually led to the well-known doctrine of the Trinity which was formulated at the councils of Nicaea (325) and Constantinople (381) as: Christianity knows one God, but this God consists of three Persons. The two ecumenical councils also formulated a brief summary of the twelve main doctrines of the Christian faith: the Nicene Creed.
--- The separate church communities (what we now call parishes or congregations) were almost completely independent. Each parish was governed by a small group of older men, called presbyters or elders. An overseer functioned as the president of the council of presbyters. In places where this overseer was called bishop, this title did not yet have the modern meaning of the ecclesiastical leader of an extended territory which has a lot of parishes. From this century onwards the bishops of Rome began to lay claim to a special position of authority within the Church. But it was not until the eleventh century that this claim was generally honored.
--- In this century there arose two splits within the Roman Empire. After the emperor Constantine had founded the city of Constantinople at the spot of present day Istanbul and after he had shifted the centre of government to this new city, the Roman Empire of the West got weaker and weaker and the Roman Empire of the East grew increasingly stronger. This splitting up of the original Roman Empire into two, more or less separate, smaller empires had far reaching consequences for the Christian Church: the Greek speaking East and the Latin speaking West fell more and more apart in the course of the centuries. Part of the conflict resulted from differences in opinion regarding the doctrine of the Trinity.
--- By the end of the century the majority of the people in the Roman Empire were Christians. Christianity had become the religion of all the countries bordering on the Mediterranean and present day France and even southern England. About the year 375 Germanic tribes from Northern Europe and Eastern Europe began to invade the Roman Empire of the West. This first led to a further weakening of this nation and ultimately to its ruin. Christianity was much more successful in dealing with these “barbarians” and just converted them.
THE FIFTH CENTURY
About the year 400 a priest in Northern Africa laid the permanent foundation of Western Christianity: Augustine. He was a very learned man who was well versed in Greek philosophy, particularly in the writings of Plato, and used this philosophy as a basis for the working out of all the teachings that together form the Christian faith. He is the builder of all the foundations under the traditional Roman Catholic teachings and he developed Catholic basic principles like: the Church is the only institution that preaches the true faith, no salvation can be found outside this Church, all the traditions of this Church are good and form the highest authority in all matters of faith, the stories of the Bible should not be taken literally, there is one God who consists of three Persons and through the sacraments the Church functions as a mediator that conveys salvation from God to humans.
--- In this century the Church began to adopt the hierarchical structure of the Roman administrative machinery to bring about more unity and more coherence. The bishops of Rome took the lead in this process. They succeeded in convincing more and more people that the bishop of Rome was the successor of the apostle Peter and the substitute on earth of Jesus. As such they claimed the highest authority over the entire Church. Now Christians also began to consider the Roman emperor as a man who had received his authority direct from God. As such the emperor was given great power, also in matters that had to do with the Church.
---In the course of the century the Roman empire of the West was completely overrun by invading Germanic tribes, who appeared to be easy to convert.
--- In its march to the North, Christianity reached Ireland in this period. Here it soon prospered excessively. And the first monasteries were founded on mainland Europe.