Structure of the Early Church

A friend sent me this link. I would like to point to factual arguments. This seems to be twisting truths to fit an agenda. What do you think?

The article states…

When a new convert made the decision to become a ‘Christian’, he or she was baptised by immersion in water for the forgiveness of their sins without delay.

This simply isn’t true. The early Church has a rigorous period of catechesis. Catechumens were instructed in the faith and tested for up to two years to ensure that they were prepared and willing to live what they were about to profess. A long period of catechesis prior to baptism is easily verifiable.

Article 17 of the Apostolic Constitution written by Hippolytus of Rome states:

Catechumens will hear the word for three years. Yet if someone is earnest and perseveres well in the matter, it is not the time that is judged, but the conduct.

Article 20 and 21 go into detail of how the catechumens are set apart, exorcised and prayed over daily until they the Bishop baptizes them. Reference

Part of his issue with the Catholic Church is that he believes we don’t do baptism by immersion as was practiced in the early Church but he doesn’t even realize that this is still practiced today. The stuff in that article sounds like it was simply made up. Clearly whomever wrote it doesn’t know what they are talking about.


Yes I got that feeling as well. I found this article:

If people were Baptized without delay then it’s hard to understand what motivated the Early Church to develop the doctrine of the Baptism of Desire (and Baptism of Blood, which is a form of Baptism of Desire). The Church was forced to confront questions about people who died (or were martyred) during the long catechesis.

The only people who would have been Baptized quickly would have been infants and those facing imminent death. Babies born to Christians got off easy.

Hmmm…it looks like they have not read the Letter of Clement of Rome to Corinth:

Chap. XLII. The order of ministers in the Church.

The apostles have preached the Gospel to us from the Lord Jesus Christ; Jesus Christ [has done sol from God. Christ therefore was sent forth by God, and the apostles by Christ. Both these appointments, then, were made in an orderly way, according to the will of God. Having therefore received their orders, and being fully assured by the resurrection of our Lord Jesus Christ, and established in the word of God, with full assurance of the Holy Ghost, they went forth proclaiming that the kingdom of God was at hand. And thus preaching through countries and cities, they appointed the first-fruits [of their labours], having first proved them by the Spirit, to be bishops and deacons of those who should afterwards believe. Nor was this any new thing, since indeed many ages before it was written concerning bishops and deacons. For thus saith the Scripture a certain place, “I will appoint their bishops s in righteousness, and their deacons in faith.”

From the title of your post, you seem to wonder about the structure of the early church as described in the first sentence of the article. It is broadly accurate, just a bit simplistic.

The Church of Christ is a congregationalist denomination and it is not surprising it would interpret history to suit their church polity.

The Ealry Church
While it is true that each congregation is autonomous, one has to remember that the equivalent of the early congregation today is the diocese. There was no order of priests in the early church - that came in the fourth century or so. Each congregation/church/diocese (and there is one in every town) is headed by a bishop, and as today, he is considered to have derived his office direct from God, not through a central organisation. The first bishops in each town normally would be been sent from somewhere else. Subsequent bishops are usually chosen by the laity and the deacons.

That is not to say, though that each church (they are not called dioceses until much later - they were called ecclesia as in gathering, and I guess congregation could be a valid translation) is totally independent of each other. As brother-successors to the apostles, the bishops do refer to each other and support each other to ensure that the orthodoxy of the faith as taught by the apostles is maintained. The exchanges between dioceses also include letters, prayers, and liturgical books. The letters in the New Testament is only the tip of the iceberg. Many of these letters got passed around to congregations other than the ones they were written to (those guys have a different concept of privacy or authorship than what we have today) and it is not unusual for letters to one church to be read as spiritual reading or at masses in another church.

Gradually, the bishop in the principal diocese in a particular area began to assume greater significance. Due to the greater resource at their disposal, they are able to sponsor new churches (often deacons are sent out to found a church in a nearby town) or support those churches which are not self-supporting. The bishops of the mother church is also often referred to clarify points of faith or practice. Disputes in daughter churches are also referred to them.

Eventually by the 2nd or 3rd centuries, such principal bishops began to assume metropolitan status like they have today, but without the large office staff or palaces. Later, the metropolitans in the three main cities of Christian teaching, Rome, Antioch and Alexandria, began to take on the role of partriachs with jurisdiction over other metropolitans in their regions.

Mediaval Church
Also, to correct the article, after the fall of the Empire, it was easy (rather than difficult as was asserted) for the Church to exert its leadership over Europe as it was the only centre of learning, knowledge and organisation - if that is meant by ‘imposed its will on Europe’. The Church in the East has always practiced a form of Caesaro-Papism (the Emperor is treated as the titular head of the church) even before the fall of the Western Empire and looked to the Emperor for guidance during disputes.

I am not sure where the idea that the Church became more dogmatic from 900 onwards cae from and I think it was rather a romantic notion by the Church of Christ that a bottom-up revolution against an overbearing and distant potent was taking place. What happened was that with the break up of Charlemagne’s empire in the ninth century, different kingdoms began vying for power. Claiming descent from Charlemagne as the first Holy Roman Emperor (counterpart to the Roman Byzantine Emperor in the East), they appointed their own bishops who often take the sides of their monarch during wars with other kingdom. There was no concept of a church of congregants without a bishop.

There was no common language from England to Italy under the Normans as the language of the people (Old English, Old French, various forms of Gaelic & Germanic and local Latin dialects) differed from the language of the court (High French). Latin remained the common language of all the educated class throughout Western Europe. Again, a romantic notion of a small band of true believers eluding the over-powerful Church to bring the true faith to people suffering under the yoke of corrupt clergymen.

Celtic Church
The protion relating to the Celtic Church needs some explaining. Until the seventh century, there were two strands of Christianity in Britain (i) Roman which first arrived in the first century with St Alban believed to be the first martyr; and (ii) Ionan, from the island of Iona and first introduced in Britain later than the Roman tradition, spread by Ss Patrick & Columa and their fellows. Constantine was brought up in the Roman tradition, his mother being a baptised Roman. The main difference between the two strands, among others, was the calculation of the date for Easter. A council at Whitby in the seventh century settled the matter in favour of the Roman practice, as reported by the Venerable Bede.

In England, there has always been the romance of resisting invaders like the Danes, Vikings, and Norman (note the Sherif of Nottingham of Robin Hood fame, had a French name). During the Reformation the idea was brought up of Celts who resisted the Roman Church until they were pushed to what is now known as the Celtic fringe in the British Isles. Today, most of these theories are discredited by most scholars of the period (probablly why they now speak of Ionan rather than Celtic due to the connotations of Braveheart-style holdouts). The article mentioned a married Celtic clergy (because Church of Christ has married pastors) but failed to mention another Celtic practice (until about 12th century) of inherited ecclesiastical offices.

In conclusion, articles such of these should be rightly be taken as suspect. There are some factual truths in them (I haven’t had time to follow up the details) and much of what is told is broadly correct, until you come to its romantic notions fo the small bands of true believers. Take it as the opportunity to research and you will find out how amazingly rich is the story of the Church. I have always found it fascinating. Happy learning.

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