The Ancient Church Fathers

Summary:  Among the believers in Christ there is a wide variety of differences in interpretation concerning what the Bible teaches. For this reason, many students of the Bible supplement their study of God’s word with a study of church history hoping that by putting the scriptures in their historical context they can better understand the true meaning of what the inspired writers intended to convey. This article looks at writings from the earliest Church leaders shortly after the death of the apostle to see what they taught the saints of their day.

In the Christian world today there is a wide variety of interpretations on what the Bible teaches about salvation, church doctrine, and church practices, with each sect or denomination claiming that their own unique understanding of the gospel is in complete agreement with what the Bible says, with what Christ and his apostles taught, and what the earliest Christians believed.

Nearly all of these churches firmly believe that the Bible is their sole source of authority for the doctrines they proclaim, and that since God is perfect, it is said that what we read in the Bible perfectly expresses what God wants us to know. Yet, despite this universally accepted conviction, there is a wide and voluminous number of differences in interpretation among Christians concerning what the Bible teaches.

For this reason, many students of the Bible supplement their study of God’s word with a study of church history. Their reason for doing so is they hope that by putting the scriptures in their historical context they can better understand the true meaning of what the inspired writers intended to convey. But there are two kinds of historical records. One kind is known as a third-party record where an historian seeks to tell his readers what Christians believed, how they practiced their religion, and describe the events that happened to them. The other kind of record is called a first-hand or personal account where the writer is telling us about what they themselves believe, experiences they’ve had, and events that have happened in their own life.

The most informative and usually more accurate of these two kinds of records are those written in the first person, but even here there are two different kinds. One is written by those whose knowledge of the subject they are telling us about is limited or incomplete, while the other is written by someone whose knowledge of the subject they’re writing about is much more extensive. The difference between these two kinds of records is similar to that of term paper written by a high school student compared to one written by a college professor on the same subject.

Fortunately, for students of the Bible, there are historical records written in the first person by recognized leaders of the early Christian church. These records include a general epistle written by Clement (Bishop of Rome) somewhere around 100 A.D. There were six letters that Ignatius (Bishop of Antioch) wrote as he was being transported in chains to Rome to be executed around 108 A.D. Each of his letters were addressed to the saints living in six different cities. There is a letter of Polycarp (Bishop of Smyrna) that he wrote about this same time to the saints living in Philippi, and there were two letters, known as apologies, or defense of Christian beliefs, written around 150 A.D. by Justin Martyr. His first apology was written to the emperor, Antonius Pius, and his second apology was addressed to the Roman Senate.

What makes all of these ancient documents so important is that they were written shortly after the death of the last apostle, John, who died somewhere between 95-100 A.D.  By studying the messages contained in each of these records we get a better understanding of what the earliest Christians leaders taught, how the saints of that era practiced their beliefs, and how they understood various passages of scripture.

Today, a popular belief among many Protestant churches is that as Paul went from city to city preaching the gospel, when he had finished evangelizing in one city he moved on to another one, leaving the converted Christians to form among themselves their own church organizational structure. For this reason, it is taught that each “church” operated independently from all the others. In other words, there was no formal, universally accepted church organization among the various churches scattered throughout Asia Minor. This theory further holds that once the apostles had preached the gospel in all of the surrounding area, their work of evangelizing had been completed and therefore they were no longer needed in the “church.” In their place, each independent church, filled with committed converts, did the work of spreading the “good news” on their own, using as their authority, the letters and gospel account of Jesus written by the apostles.

But what we see in all of the letters written by the above mentioned bishops (some more than in others) is that each city where there were saints (which is what the Christians called themselves) they had a bishop who presided over the saints, with presbyters (elders), and deacons serving under his direction in caring for the spiritual needs of the saints living in his particular city and overseeing the work of teaching the gospel of Christ to those outside of the Church. In addition to this, what we see in these letters is that the bishop was in full charge of everything that went on in his congregation (more on that in a moment), with the elders serving under his supervision, and with the deacons serving under the direction of the elders.

In Acts 14 we read where Paul ordained elders in every city he preached at, and in the New Testament, we read of the apostle Paul giving counsel and direction to two bishops (Timothy, bishop of Ephesus, and Titus, bishop of Crete). We also learn from history that those who were ordained as bishops were those who had been close traveling companions with the apostles, who appointed or ordained them to watch over the saints in a particular city.

But these men weren’t randomly selected. Rather, they were specifically chosen by the ordaining apostle because he was well acquainted with their strong, immovable faith in Jesus Christ, their deep understanding of the gospel, and the integrity of their character. These men had to be thoroughly grounded in the gospel and had to be living exemplary Christian lives because as a bishop their duty was to stand in place of the apostles to watch over the flock of Christ in their assigned city while the apostles traveled to new cities to preach the gospel.

What we see in the earliest writings after the death of the apostles is that in every city the organization was exactly the same. Each church was presided over by a bishop, with elders, and deacon arranged in a hierarchical order, whose duty it was to watch over the saints in their area, making sure that the gospel was being properly taught and that the saints were living the gospel (see Ephesians 4:11-14). What we also see is that in the first century the bishop himself was watched over and supervised by an apostle.

However, after all the apostles had died, the bishops then took over the role of holding the entire church together. The letters that Clement, Ignatius, and Polycarp wrote to the various churches gave the same kind of teachings, exhortations, and counsel that Paul, Peter, James, and John had done in their letters, and they did this for the same reason that the apostles wrote their epistles. But these men were qualified to act in this manner because, before becoming a bishop, they had been close companions with the apostles. For example. both Ignatius and Polycarp were disciples of the apostle John, and Clement was a companion to the apostle Paul (Philippians 4:3). He was also the third bishop of Rome and undoubtedly personally knew the apostle Peter, who was the first bishop of Rome.

Despite the great work of the apostles to preach the gospel to the world, by 100 A.D. the Christian church was still relatively small, and each Sunday all the saints living in a particular city were able to meet together in one place under the watchful eye of their bishop, but as the church began to grow, there came a time when it wasn’t possible for everyone to meet under one roof. To solve this problem, the bishops assembled the saints into smaller groups and appointed a priest as his representative to watch over each congregation, and as the church grew even larger, more and more layers of supervision were needed to watch over, guide, and strengthen its members. This led to the creation of such positions as archbishops, cardinals, and a supreme Pope.

Those who say there was no commonly organized structure to the primitive church are not able to explain how the early saints went from being independent churches, acting on their own authority, to becoming a strongly unified and highly organized Catholic Church, nor can they show when this transformation took place. Yet, when we look at how the Christian faith in 100 A.D. was organized we can clearly see the beginnings of the organizational structure that later grew into what we now see in the world-wide Catholic Church.

Today, many modern Protestant churches teach that there is no need for a priesthood among believers and there are two arguments they use to support their position. One is that under the law of Moses priests were only needed to offer sacrifices to God, but since Jesus Christ, who was our High Priest, made the ultimate and last sacrifice for sins, we no longer need priests in the church. For this reason, it is said that the priesthood was done away with in Christ. The second argument is based on 1 Peter 5:9 which states that “ye are a chosen generation, a royal priesthood.” According to an interpretation of this scripture, every Christian holds the priesthood simply by virtue of them believing in Christ.

In his letter to the Smyrneans, Ignatius specifically mentions that the bishop holds the priesthood and for this reason, anyone who dishonors the bishop dishonors our high priest, Jesus Christ, whom the bishop represents. As mentioned earlier, the New Testament tells us that Paul ordained elders in every city, and an elder (or presbyter) is an office in the priesthood. If it isn’t then there would be no need to perform an ordination to makes someone an elder. Even the apostles referred to themselves by the title of elder, showing that they too held a priesthood.

But did all believers hold the priesthood? In ancient Israel, only males belonging to the tribe of Levi were ordained as priests, and what we see in the letters of Clement, Ignatius, Polycarp, and Justin, is that only a small group of men (bishops, elders, and deacons) held the priesthood. In ancient Israel the priests were the only ones authorized to perform certain rituals or ordinances, especially those pertaining to the removal of sin. As such, they stood as an earthly representative for a heavenly God. Since the law of Moses was our schoolmaster to bring us to Christ (Galatians 3:24), it’s obvious that the priesthood in the Christian church performed the same function.

It is well known that the Catholic Church has always had a very well developed and defined system of priests, and it is just as well known that not all of its members belong to this priesthood. Those who say that there were no priesthood positions in the earliest church or that the original saints were all equal in authority, are at a loss to explain when or why a priesthood was first introduced into the church’s religious beliefs when none existed.  More than that, Martin Luther, who is the father of the reformation, was a priest and despite his complaints about the teachings of the Catholic Church, believed in the need for a priesthood. In fact, even today, there are priests in the Lutheran church, as there are in some of the oldest Protestant churches. In the history of Christianity, the idea that we don’t need a priesthood, or that all believers in Christ hold the priesthood, is a relatively new idea.

The next thing we learn from the early writers is why the priesthood is important. Ignatius especially emphasized the point that nothing is to be done in the church without the approval of the bishop, although this concept can be seen in many of the other writings. Baptisms, marriages, the taking of the Eucharist, and even the holding of meetings needed to be conducted either by the bishop himself or by someone he appointed to act in his stead. Furthermore, Ignatius taught that we are to be obedient to the bishop as we would to Jesus Christ. Those who disobey the bishop or who do anything connected with the church without the bishop’s approval, not only dishonors their bishop but dishonors God as well.

Such a sentiment would seem almost blasphemous in today’s modern Protestant churches because it would be said that our only allegiance should be to Christ and not to any earthly, fallible man, no matter how righteous they may be. However, Ignatius explained that “the bishop as the high priest, bears the image of God — of God, inasmuch as he is a ruler, and of Christ, in his capacity of a high priest… He who honors the bishop shall be honored by God, even as he that dishonors him shall be punished by God… For the priesthood is the very highest point of all good things among men, against which whosoever is mad enough to strive [against], dishonors not man but God and Christ Jesus… Let all things therefore be done by you with good order in Christ. Let the laity be subject to the deacons, the deacons to the presbyters, the presbyters to the bishop, the bishop to Christ, even as He is to the Father.” (letter to the Smyrnaeans, chapter 9)

In another letter Ignatius explains, “For every one whom the Master of the household sendeth to be steward over his own house, we ought so to receive as Him that sent him. Plainly therefore we ought to regard the bishop as the Lord himself.” (letter to the Ephesians , chapter 6) And in another letter he taught, “Where the shepherd is, there do you follow as sheep.” (letter to the Philadelphians, chapter 2)

According to Ignatius (and his sentiments are similarly expressed in the writings of other early Christian leaders), just as Jesus is the Good Shepherd who watches over his sheep, and his sheep follow his voice, so also the bishop was called by Christ to watch over his flock, acting in the capacity as the earthly shepherd of Christ’s believers, and that his flock was to follow him as they would Christ. In fact, today the Catholic Church still teaches this same concept, especially where it concerns the Pope, whom they consider to be the ultimate shepherd and high priest of God.

Although many Protestant churches today reject this kind of leadership model, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints follows the same pattern. An LDS bishop is a high priest who presides over all that goes on in his congregation (known as a ward) and is charged with caring for both the temporal and spiritual needs of all those within his area of responsibility. He is personally responsible for making sure that the Sacrament (Eucharist) is properly administered, that all new converts sufficiently understand the commitment they are making before baptism, and that all baptisms are properly performed. He is also responsible for the proper administration of all the other sacred ordinance and insuring that what is taught in his congregation is in perfect harmony with the teachings of Christ. In short, his role is to be the shepherd over his flock, after being called and set apart by divine revelation from God. When a new bishop is called, the members of his ward signify their willingness to “sustain” him, meaning, in part, that they are willing to submit themselves to his authority.

An LDS bishop is also responsible for watching over the other priesthood offices, such as those of elder, priest, teacher, and deacon. In addition to this he watches over the woman’s, youth, and missionary programs in his ward. In 1830 the LDS church only consisted of six people but as it grew in membership more layers of supervision were needed and the position of stake presidents, and general authorities, then area authorities were created. Thus, the way the LDS church is organized and its members watched over is nearly identical to the way the earliest Christian church operated.

Furthermore, in a revelation given to the Prophet Joseph Smith in 1831 the Lord declared “whether by mine own voice or by the voice of my servants, it is the same” (D&C 1:38). This was the exact same sentiment the earliest Christians held concerning their bishops who they believed was appointed by the Lord to serve as his earthy shepherd. Even today all Christians believe that God spoke his word through holy men known as apostles whose writing we reverence as being the word of God himself. However, the earliest Christians also believed the same thing about their bishops, who they considered to be high priests of God and who acted as emissaries of our heavenly high priest, Jesus Christ.

Perhaps the most commonly accepted doctrine in all of Christendom is that of the Trinity which teaches that there is one God who is comprised of three beings – the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost. Although it is taught that the Father is not the Son or the Holy Ghost, the Son is not the Father or the Holy Ghost, and neither is the Holy Ghost the Father or the Son, yet it is taught that these are not three separate individual people which, if they were, would mean there were three Gods, but all of them together are considered as one God, with each of them being equal in majesty, glory, and power with one another. This means that the Father is not any greater in any way than the Son or the Holy Ghost because they all possess the same qualities equally among themselves. When asked to explain how this can be, the answer most generally given by Christians is that it’s mystery that finite minds are unable to fully comprehend.

This doctrine of the Trinity was first put forth by the bishops of the Catholic church in 325 A.D. at the council of Nicea and today even the Protestant faiths accept this concept of the Godhead as being accurate. However, from the writings of the earliest bishops, who personally knew and traveled with the apostles, they speak of the Father and the Son as though they were two separate and distinct individuals.

For example, Ignatius says that “the Lord Jesus Christ…. Rejoiced in the pre-eminence of the Father” (letter to the Smyrneans, chapter 7), that we are to “be imitators of Jesus Christ, even as he is of his Father” (Letter to the Philadelphians, chapter 7), that we are to be in ”union with Jesus and with the Father,” that Jesus Christ “came forth from One Father and departed unto [the] One [Father] (letter to the Magnesians, chapter 1 & 7), and that it was the Father who raised Jesus from the dead (letter to the Trallians, chapter 9),

Clement in his letter states that “Christ was sent by God, and the apostles [were sent] by Christ. Both of these appointments were made in an orderly way according to the will of God, having therefore received their orders” (1 Clement, chapter 42). What Clement is saying is that, just as Jesus appointed and sent the apostles out to preach the gospel, in like manner, the Father appointed or sent His Son to earth to preach the gospel. Therefore, it can be said that both Jesus and the apostles “received their orders” from God, the Father.

Polycarp wrote, “Ye have believed on him that raised our Lord Jesus Christ from the dead and gave unto him glory and a throne on his right hand; unto whom all things were made subject that are in heaven and that are on earth” (chapter 2). Here Polycarp says that it was God the Father who raised Jesus from the dead and then the Father gave unto his Son “glory and a throne on his right hand,” and it was the Father who then made all things “in heaven and that are on the earth” subject to the Son.

In his defense of Christianity to the Emperor Antonius Pius, Justin Martyr explains what Christians believe as it was taught to them by the apostles. Concerning Jesus Christ he wrote, “We reasonably worship Him, having learned that He is the Son of the true God Himself, and holding Him in the second place, and the prophetic Spirit in the third” (chapter 13), that Jesus is “the first power after God the Father” (chapter 33), and that he is called God’s “angel and apostle, for he… is sent forth to declare whatever is revealed: as our Lord Himself says, He that hears me, hears him that sent me” (chapter 63).

In this same chapter Justin went on to explain that the Jews were of the opinion “that it was the Father of the universe who spoke to Moses, though he who spoke to him was indeed the Son of God, who is called both Angel and Apostle… they who affirm that the Son is the Father are proved neither to have become acquainted with the Father nor know that the Father of the universe has a Son.”

All of these statements (and others that could be cited) show that the early Christians believed that God the Father was the one true God, who was the Father of the universe and is pre-eminent over all things and is the God we worship. This one true God had a Son who was second in power only to the Father, and that the Son was sent to earth to proclaim the Father’s message according to the will of the Father.

The Greek word “angel” means “messenger,” and the Greek word “apostle” means “one who is sent.” When Justin says that Christians have been taught that Jesus is the angel and apostle of God the Father, what he is saying is that God, the Father, sent Jesus to earth to deliver the Father’s message of salvation.

In 1820 the Christian world believed that the Father, Son, and Holy Ghost were all one, but in that year a young 14 year old boy named Joseph Smith knelt in prayer one Spring morning in a grove of trees on his father’s farm to ask God which of all the churches taught the true gospel of Christ. In answer to his prayer, Joseph saw two personages standing above him in the air. One of them said, pointing to the other, “This is my beloved Son in whom I am well pleased. Hear him.” The other person then spoke and identified himself as Jesus Christ. From that experience Joseph learned from his own personal experience that the Father and the Son are two separate and distinct individual people.

Later, an angel of God showed Joseph a number of gold plates that were buried in a hill near his home, which contained a record of a very ancient civilization that was written by prophets of God who had once lived on the American continent. In 1830 Joseph published the English translation of that record, which is known as the Book of Mormon. In this book there is an account of Jesus Christ visiting these people after his resurrection and one of the things he told them was, “I came into the world to do the will of my Father, because the Father sent me” (3 Nephi 27:13).

Although this again shows that the Father and Son are two different individual people, with the Father directing His Son to come to earth and with the Son doing the will of the Father, at the time the Book of Mormon was published this concept of God was completely contrary to the orthodox doctrine of God that nearly all Christians at that time believed. Yet, from all the writing of the early Church Fathers, we see that this is exactly what the Christians living in 100-150 A.D. already believed.

The other most commonly held belief among today’s Christians is that salvation is granted to us as a gift from God. Quoting Ephesians 2:8-9, which says “For by grace are ye saved through faith and not of yourselves: it is the gift of God: not of works, lest any man should boast,” many modern churches teach that performing “works” are not necessary in order to obtain salvation, and that includes the “work” of baptism.

According to this doctrine, the only thing truly necessary for salvation is explained in Romans 10:9 which states, “If thou shalt confess with thy mouth the Lord Jesus and shall believe in thine heart that God raised him from the dead, thou shalt be saved.” And a corollary to this is that once a person has become saved, there is nothing they can do be lose their salvation. This is known as the doctrine of “once saved, always saved.”

However, the earliest Christians didn’t share that belief. Ignatius taught, “It is therefore meet that we not only be called Christians, but also be such” (letter to the Magnesians, chapter 4), “Seeing that we are become his disciples, let us learn to live as beseemeth” (chapter 10). “Sing with one voice through Jesus Christ unto the Father that he may both hear you and acknowledge you by your good deeds to be members of his Son” (Letter to the Ephesians, chapter 4), that “they that profess to be Christ’s shall be seen through their actions” (chapter 14).

Clement wrote, “Walk in the commandments of God, being obedient… adorned by a thoroughly virtuous and religious life” (chapter 1,2). “Let us attend to what is good, pleasing, and acceptable in the sight of him who formed us… So let us yield obedience to his glorious will” (chapter 7, 9). “Let us hasten with all energy and readiness of mind to perform every good work, for the Creator and Lord of all himself rejoices in his works…. We see then that all righteous men have been adorned with good works and how the Lord himself adorned himself with his works.” (chapter 33)

Justin Martyr wrote, “Impelled by the desire of the eternal and pure life, we seek the abode that is with God the Father and Creator of all, and… persuaded and convinced that they who have proved to God by their works that they follow him… [for we have been taught] that each man goes to everlasting punishment or salvation according to the value of his actions” (chapter 8, 12). They “be understood to be no Christians, even though they profess with the lip the precepts of Christ; for not those who make profession, but those who do the works shall be saved…. As to those who are not living pursuant to these his teachings are Christians only in name” (chapter 16). “by our works also to be found good citizens and keepers of the commandments, so that we may be saved with an everlasting salvation” (chapter 65).

Polycarp wrote, “He that raised him (Jesus) from the dead will raise us also if we do his will and walk in his commandments” (chapter 2). “Knowing that God is not mocked, we ought to walk worthily of his commandments… If we be well pleasing unto him in this present world, we shall receive the future world,,, If we conduct ourselves worthy of him we shall also reign with him” (chapter 5).

The clear implication in all of these statements is that if we don’t keep the commandments and live as a Christian should, we won’t be saved in the kingdom of God. But Ignatius also mentions that those who depart from the faith and follow false teachings will likewise lose their salvation. He wrote, “Take ye only Christian food, and abstain from strange herbage, which is heresy, for these men do even mingle poison with Jesus Christ, imposing upon others by a show of honesty, like persons administering a deadly drug with honeyed wine, so that one who knoweth it not and fearing nothing, drinketh in death with a baneful delight” (letter to the Trallians, chapter 6). “If a man through evil doctrine corrupt the faith of God for which Jesus Christ was crucified, such a man, having defiled himself, shall go into the unquenchable fire, and in like manner also shall he that hearkeneth unto him” (letter to the Ephesians, chapter 16).

Concerning baptism, Ignatius wrote, “Let your baptism abide with you as your shield” (letter to Polycarp, chapter 6). Justine explained, “As many as are persuaded and believe that what we teach and say is true, and undertake to be able to live accordingly, are instructed to pray and to entreat God with fasting, for the remission of their sins that are past, we praying and fasting with them. Then they are brought by us where there is water and are regenerated in the same manner in which we were ourselves were regenerated…. they then receive the washing with water. For Christ also said, Unless you be born again, you shall not enter into the kingdom of heaven… And for this [rite] we have learned from the apostles this reason: Since at our birth we were born without our own knowledge or choice… [we]  may become the children of choice and knowledge, and may obtain in the water the remission of sins formerly committed, there is pronounced over him who chooses to be born again, and has repented of his sins, the name of God the Father and Lord of the universe; he who leads to the laver the person that is to be washed… And this washing is called illumination, because they who learn these things are illuminated in their understandings” (chapter 61).

Justin goes on to say, “But we, after we have thus washed him who has been convinced and has assented to our teaching, bring him to the place where those who are called brethren are assembled…  Having ended the prayers, we salute one another with a kiss. There is then brought to the president of the brethren bread and a cup of wine mixed with water… And this food is called among us Εὐχαριστία [the Eucharist], of which no one is allowed to partake but the man who believes that the things which we teach are true, and who has been washed with the washing that is for the remission of sins, and unto regeneration, and who is so living as Christ has enjoined” (chapter 65, 66).

To the earliest Christians, they believed that being baptized by an authorized priest in the church was absolutely necessary in order to become saved. This is what they understood Jesus meant when he said that except a man be born of the water and of the Spirit he cannot enter into the kingdom of heaven. Justin clearly states that this is what the apostles taught. To them, baptism was the means whereby our past sins were washed away. But before a person could be baptized they first had to repent of all their past sins and make a commitment that once baptized they would faithfully follow the teachings of Jesus Christ and keep his commandments. As mentioned earlier, those who did not keep this commitment were in danger of losing their salvation.

They called baptism by several names. One was the “washing” because it washed away our sins committed prior to being baptized. Another name they gave it was, “regeneration” meaning that in baptism we are regenerated or reborn, and they also called it “illumination” which has reference to the illumination that comes from the Holy Ghost which they believed was given to someone only after they have been baptized. Furthermore, it was taught by the earliest Christians that unless a person has been baptized by an authorized priest in the church, that person was not entitled to receive the Holy Ghost.

In the early church baptism was considered to be so important that without it a person wasn’t considered saved, and if they were not saved they couldn’t become a member of Christ’s church, and if they were not a member they weren’t allowed to partake of the bread and wine ordinance known to them as the Eucharist. Furthermore, as we have already seen, even if someone had been baptized but was deceived into believing a doctrine not taught by the church, they could lose their salvation, What the early Christians believed was that a person had to be a faithful member in Christ’s church in keeping the commandments of God in order to receive salvation. Therefore, they believed that the church itself was the means or the instrument through which a person became saved.

One of the very few Christian churches today that holds all of these same beliefs is the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Yet, their doctrines weren’t developed by a group of biblical scholars who had carefully examined the writings of the early Christian leaders or from an in-depth study of church history. Instead, a young man name Joseph Smith said that God appeared to him and told him that He (Jesus Christ) was going to restore his ancient church on the earth again, along with its doctrines, priesthood, and organizational structure that had become corrupted over the centuries through changes instituted by men.

Joseph Smith was the son of a poor farmer in rural New York state, who had very little, if any, formal education. When he first proclaimed his doctrines, the ministers of his day ridiculed and mocked him because what he said God told him was so different from what all the other churches of his day were preaching. Yet, we now see that his teachings – which he said was revealed to him from God – agree very closely to what we read in the writing of the ancient church fathers.


Related articles can be found at The Nature of Mormonism and Biblical History