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Church History

They Had Cults, Too!

AD 90 to AD 250

1 John 2:18-19 (NKJV)
18 Little children, it is the last hour; and as you have heard that the Antichrist is coming, even now many antichrists have come, by which we know that it is the last hour. 19 They went out from us, but they were not of us; for if they had been of us, they would have continued with us; but they went out that they might be made manifest, that none of them were of us.

Why a fish?

Why is a fish the early symbol of Christianity?

If you carefully review the letters of the New Testament, you will quickly discover that the major purpose of virtually all of them is to combat some type of false teaching that has invaded or is about to invade the church’s teachings.  The Bible is not a book written in the format of what we would call systematic theology.  Rather, it is written as letters to existing churches, about existing problems of the time.  The New Testament writers took the teachings of Christ and explained to the local churches how to uphold Christ’s teachings within a given set of circumstances.

Systematic theology is a uniform statement of belief on a given topic.  For example, nowhere within Scripture is the doctrine of the Trinity explained or defended.  This task is the world of systematic theology.  As we look at the first several hundred years of the church’s life we will discover that systematic theology was born in response to the on-going problems of cults and false teachings that invaded the church.  As false teachers produced false doctrine, the Church Fathers defended Christianity by providing a “correct” statement of the doctrine involved in the controversy.  Thus, systematic theology was born in the cradle of false doctrines. 

Terms to Remember

THEOLOGY is the study of God.  This, in turn, has led man to define beliefs in God in general “catch-all” terms.  There is some benefit to understanding these terms, at least in broad concepts.  It will help us place religions together as to their overall worldviews of God.

ATHEISM, outright denial of the existence of God, is a position that many claim to hold.  If you are an atheist, you believe that man is alone and life is meaningless.  This is the Soviet cosmonaut’s view of the universe (“I can’t see God, so He must not exist.”).  It is contradicted by evidence in nature, the conscience, and the spiritual makeup of the individual, as well as by biblical teaching.  At heart, it is a rejection of the self-revelation of the personal God of the Bible, who has on innumerable occasions communicated with human beings for their benefit.  Many people are practical atheists because they have not bothered to inquire about the existence and character of God.

AGNOSTICISM, the belief that one cannot know if God exists or not, amounts to a suspension of knowledge.  As with atheism, it rejects the many self-disclosures of God.  It is an affront to the God Who has spoken, is based on pride, and offers no hope for life now or after death.  Both positions are contrary to the basic makeup of human beings, who desperately need contact with their Creator and have the spiritual capacity to interact with Him.

PANTHEISM is an often sophisticated but actually illogical view of God.  It denies the existence of a personal God who interacts intelligently with human beings.  Instead, God is the same thing as the universe, and, in turn, the universe of God.  Of course, in this view we are part of God and He is part of us.  If you are a pantheist, then you have to conclude that at any given moment you are sitting or standing on God!  It actually sacrifices God’s personhood for His infinity, and, in some forms of the view, makes God physical, although in some variations everything is supposedly nonmaterial and spiritual, including the universe.  Pantheism is an attempt to reduce God to identity with His creation.

POLYTHEISM, the belief in a plurality of gods (equal or differing in rank) is prevalent throughout the world, as is pantheism.  This view clearly contradicts the biblical teaching that there is only one deity and that He is unique in power and position.  In polytheism in general, the adherent can never know if he has pleased the right god.  We might call this the Alka-Seltzer view of God.  Like a medicine that covers all the bases, polytheism, by encouraging placating all the gods to obtain favor, assuages the conscience, or at least it attempts to!

DEISM is the view that God exists and can interact with human beings, but has withdrawn from contact with them.  In some forms it involves denial of the Trinity, the incarnation, miracles, and other orthodox doctrines.

MONOTHEISM is the belief in only one God, a God who is active in the universe.  Christianity, Judaism, and Islam are the only monotheistic religions.

MONISM is the belief of all-in-one.  It is the unity of all reality, not the belief in a single God.  It is similar in results to pantheism.

APOSTASY is generally defined as the determined, willful rejection of Christ and His teachings by a Christian believer (Heb. 10:26-29; John 15:22). This is different from false belief, or error, which is the result of ignorance.  The problem is whether or not a true believer can reject Christ.  A better view is that apostasy involves long-time “members” of the “professing church,” those who declare with their mouths they are Christians, a position not supported by their hearts.

A CULT, then, is a perversion or distortion of biblical Christianity.  It is a rejection of the historic teachings of the Christian church.  A cult is a group of people based upon someone’s interpretation of the Bible and is characterized by major deviations from orthodox Christian beliefs.  This deviation is particularly concerned with the Trinity and the Person of Jesus Christ.

The church cannot defend the faith unless it understands the faith.  The history of the early church is the story of the church leaders and members coming to understand their statement of faith.

ORTHODOXY is the method of referring to the standard of beliefs held by the Church of Christ.  It is the list of “doctrines” believed to be truth.

DOCTRINE is the body of beliefs about God, humankind, Christ, the church, and other related concepts considered authoritative and thus worthy of acceptance by all members of the community of faith.  A copy of Calvary Road’s statement of faith, as found on the church website, is attached as an exhibit to this chapter.

“ORTHODOX” comes from two Greek words which mean “right” and “honor.”  Thus, the term orthodox in Christian usage means to rightly honor God.  It may be viewed as meaning that one should rightly accept and obey all of the foundational teachings of the Bible.

Those who corrupt the foundations of orthodoxy are called heretics.  The Greek words from which we get “HERESY” and “HERETIC” simply mean to “act of choice” or “an attachment.”  Thus, in Christian terms, a heresy is a false doctrine, but not just a false doctrine.  Rather, it is a false doctrine so important to those who believe it, that it must be considered an abandonment of the faith.

The story of the early church may be viewed as the battle between God’s people who define and defend the proper statements of faith as against Satan’s people who would abandon the faith by changing the statements of belief.

The seeds of this battle are found in the New Testament letters.  Galatians speaks to those who are called Judaizers.  This group would impose a requirement of circumcision upon persons wishing to become Christians.  The rite of circumcision comes from the Jewish rituals and was the covenant sign between God and Abraham.  By requiring a person to be circumcised, the Jewish covenant was being placed upon the requirements of faith. 

Paul writes against this imposing of Jewish rites in his letter to the Galatians.  The Jerusalem Council, found in Acts 15, demonstrates the entire church leadership body resolving this conflict by rejecting the requirement.

As you read the New Testament letters, with the exception of the imposition of the rituals of Judaism, you will not find any definite, full-grown cults.  Rather, the letters suggest the seeds of cults who would grow to maturity in the following centuries.  You will find many of these cult foundations still present with the modern church.

EBIONISM was the continuation of Judaism into the second century.  It rejected the deity of Christ, the virgin birth, and the efficacy of His suffering.  They taught Jesus was the natural child of Joseph and Mary.  Their goal was to retain a true monotheism, thus, Jesus could not be God (teaching there was no Trinity).  Jesus was Messiah as a reward for His adherence to the Law.  The Ebionites rejected Paul as an apostle and venerated Peter.  It disappeared by the Fifth Century and had no lasting effect upon the church.

GNOSTICISM: From the Greek gnosis, meaning “knowledge,” taught the belief that the physical world is evil and that only secret knowledge can free persons from the physical world.  If this is so, Jesus as a human could not be God, for being human or physical, Jesus would have been evil.  This leads most Gnostics, but not all, to be . . .

DOCETISTS, those who practice Docetism.  This name comes from the Greek docein meaning “to seem.”  Their teaching was that Jesus only seemed to possess a physical body, so He only seemed to be crucified.

Although the seeds of the Gnostic teachings will be found in the New Testament, the cult did not become truly functional until the second century.  Christian Scientists are a modern version of the Gnostic movement.  Mormonism also has Gnostic elements.

Montanist’s, also called the New Prophets, existed from around 150 to about 220.  They preached a return to the New Testament emphasis on the dynamic acts of the Spirit.  They exhibited a series of harsh moral standards and issued many prophecies that did not come true.  These two factors resulted in their rejection.  Their teachings may be found in many of the fringe charismatic movements of today, such as the World Faith movement.  Oddly enough, one of the major leaders of the Montanists was Prisca (died prox. AD 190).  A review of the cult movements of the last two hundred years shows that many of our modern cults have female leaders.  Prisca prophesized that Christ would return to Phrygia during her lifetime.

Along with fighting the cults, the leaders of this time period were faced with the need to organize the church.  Like any entity, the larger it grows, the more difficult it becomes to manage.  While one might not think God requires help running His church, there has always been the practical side of church life.  This was found in Acts 6 where the Apostles had to appoint deacons to oversee some of the “practical” matters of the church.

Jude 3 (NKJV)
3 Beloved, while I was very diligent to write to you concerning our common salvation, I found it necessary to write to you exhorting you to contend earnestly for the faith which was once for all delivered to the saints.

During this period, “elder,” “overseer,” “presbyter,” and “bishop” all referred to the same role, one community preferring a given term to another.  Christians met in homes and ordained elders to oversee the local groups.  Baptism occurred as people trusted in Christ, a pattern established within the New Testament.

As one moves into the third century, the church bodies within a city began to appoint an elder or bishop to oversee all of the churches within that community.  Congregations, or groups of congregations, began to purchase property for their meeting halls.  Two other changes occurred during this period.

First, some groups started to baptize infants.  Second, baptism was postponed until the believer had been trained.  These practices arose out of a deep-seated desire to properly defend the faith.

All of these changes arose as the means to defend the church against Gnosticism!

One of the prominent Gnostics of this time period was one Marcion.  The son of an elder in charge of churches around the Black Sea’s southern coast, the young Marcion forsook the church in favor of ship-owning and sailing.  He returned home after developing a distaste for the world.  After being unrepentant over an affair with a young member of his father’s church, the young Marcion was excommunicated from the church. 

Upon fleeing to Rome, Marcion became a member of the church at Rome, contributing some two million dollars to the church!  Here, Marcion developed his own theology.

While not one to seek secret knowledge from the Scriptures, he preached that our loving God the Father would not resurrect a natural body from the grave nor was the New Testament Father connected with the wrathful God of the Old Testament.  God the Father being spirit, Jesus was spirit and only seemed to be human (an early form of Docetism).

Viewing all physical things as evil, this group drank water with the Lord’s Supper, thinking wine might lead to physical pleasures.  In fact, the group banned all sexual relations, including those between spouses. 

Marcion perceived that many of the writings of the Apostles contradicted his position, so he resolved this issue by defining the New Testament to his own liking.  He accepted parts of Luke and ten of Paul’s letters.  From Luke, he removed the story of Jesus’ birth and from Paul’s letters he removed all mention of the Old Testament.  By rejecting the Old Testament and purging Paul’s writings the God of the Hebrews did not exist for Marcion!

Polycarp is the Church Father most responsible for dealing with Marcion.  In the end, Marcion was removed from the church in Rome.  He formed his own congregations in Italy and Asia Minor.

Although most Gnostics would eventually voluntarily withdraw from the local churches, forming their owning groups, the Gnostic teachings had settled into Christianity and will surface in various forms over the centuries.  Another Church Father, Origen, serves as an example.

From Alexandria, Egypt, Origen’s major contribution to the church is an extensive study of the biblical manuscripts.  He strongly preached against Gnosticism, but renounced all physical comforts himself.  Believing Matthew 19:12 to be a literal command, Origen castrated himself.  He drank only water and wore no shoes.  He urged Christians to diligently search the Scriptures, suggesting they would find mystical messages within their pages. 

The net result of those who followed Origen ultimately leads to a variety of groups who promoted physical discomforts and limited sexual lives as a means of following Christ.  In addition, when faced with difficult passages, these leaders would explain them by looking for secret, hidden meanings.  Consider the strong acceptance of the Bible codebooks and arguments in the last few years.

What does it mean to be a Christian?

This is the question that faced the leaders of this time period. 

The answers came, ultimately, in three forms.

While we will look at the Bible’s history next week, it is important to remember that at this time, much of the teaching was by oral tradition.  Letters, and copies of letters from the New Testament writers existed and were circulated, but not every church had copies of all the letters.  Some placed more emphasis on the Gospels than on the letters.  Others placed more emphasis on the letters.  Some letters were accepted in some locations, but not others.  By around AD 200-250 most churches accepted:

It would take time before Hebrews, 2 Peter, 2 and 3 John, and Jude are added and the Revelation of Peter and the Shepherd of Hermas are removed.  The initial point to remember is that it was the dispute with Marcion that forced the church to focus on the issue of what books should be in the Bible.

In addition, because of these various groups offering false teachings, the approach to baptism was changed.  The churches developed a Rule of Faith as a series of baptismal questions to be answered prior to being baptized.  Some churches would take as long as three years to teach the new converts these “rules” before allowing the convert to be baptized.  Again, the rise of cults and false teachings made the church focus on assuring itself that its members understood the full impact of the question, “Have you trusted Jesus as your Lord and Savior?”

One version of the basic Rule of Faith reads:

Do you believe in God the Father, Ruler of all?  Do you believe in Christ Jesus, God’s Son, who was born by the Holy Spirit through the virgin Mary, was crucified under Pontius Pilate, died and was buried, and rose again on the third day, alive from the dead, and ascended into heaven, sat at the Father’s right hand, and will come again to judge the living and the dead?  Do you believe in the Holy Spirit, the holy church, and the resurrection of the flesh?
Apostolike Paradosis

These rules would “evolve” into widely used Creeds, such as the Apostles’ Creed, that would be used as a mechanism for teaching doctrine and the faith. 

I believe in God, the Father Almighty,
     the Creator of heaven and earth,
     and in Jesus Christ, His only Son, our Lord:

Who was conceived of the Holy Spirit,
     born of the Virgin Mary,
     suffered under Pontius Pilate,
     was crucified, died, and was buried.

He descended into hell.

The third day He arose again from the dead.

He ascended into heaven
      and sits at the right hand of God the Father Almighty,
      whence He shall come to judge the living and the dead.

I believe in the Holy Spirit, the holy *catholic church,
       the communion of saints,
       the forgiveness of sins,
       the resurrection of the body,
       and life everlasting.


Lastly, the professional priesthood was taking shape.  Someone had to develop and protect the Rule of Faith.  This was left to the elders of the church.  During the second century, Gnostic teachers circulated tracts supposedly written by Thomas.  To combat this influence, elders of the church began to trace both their teachings and their authority back to the Apostles. 

As such overseers became the keepers of the faith.  They were viewed as the official trustees of the Apostles’ teachings.  In larger cities, their powers grew and their geographical sphere of influence grew as well.  Since they exercised authority over large regions, they began calling one another “fathers.”  The Latin for “fathers” is “popes.”

Before you apply your modern views to the above and arrive at conclusions that are not yet applicable, it is important to understand that the work done by the Church Fathers did protect the faith.  Many controversies would arise over the years that would be defended by the Church Fathers, men who were part of the this groups of overseers or popes.  But, as with any office, power is always subject to abuse.   

At this time in history, the authority of the overseers still rested solely within the spiritual walls of the church.  Their teachings would influence the morals of their followers, thus, indirectly influencing society, but their power did not control governments.  Theirs was the world of the church and nothing more. 

Other controversial seeds were being planted during this time period.  Marcion and Gnosticism were not the only issues.

Polycarp was the bishop of Smyrna.  The churches in that region (“Eastern”) celebrated Easter during the Jewish Passover.  However, the churches in the Roman area (the “West”) celebrated Easter the Sunday after the Passover.  While in Rome debating with Marcion, Polycarp and the then bishop of Rome, Anicetus, debated the date of Easter without conclusions.  They parted friends. 

Some 30 years or so later, Victor became the overseer in Rome.  At Victor’s request, churches around Jerusalem commenced observing Easter based upon the Roman reckoning.  When other Eastern churches did not follow suit, Victor excluded them from Christian fellowship.  While this action was widely protested, Victor did not relent and viewed the Eastern churches as cursed of God.  Victor’s position was ignored following his death, but the wound remained infected, as we will observe later in our study.

Another issue facing the church involved the question of what held the local bodies together as a group.  We have seen one answer already – the Rule of Faith, the Canon of Scripture and the body of overseers.  In the Eastern churches, the Montanists arose who claimed that dynamic gifts of the Holy Spirit were also necessary.  This group was ultimately excluded from the church because of a disproportional reliance upon the gifts of the Holy Spirit and their prophecies instead of reliance upon the Scriptures.

The Montanists’ position was determined, to a great extent, not upon the issue of the gifts of the Spirit, but upon the relative position of the individual believer verses the overseers of the church.  Who did God talk to?  The leaders or the laity? 

Today, we know that the answer is that God speaks to all believers and that for a church to be in harmony, He will speak the same general message to all members.  It is God who makes the Church holy and it is God who provides the path the church is to travel.  The time period of the second and third centuries was a time when the church was attempting to learn this lesson.  History will suggest that the church was only partially successfully in learning it.


Why a fish?

The early Christians spoke mostly Greek.  The New Testament was written in Greek.  The Greek word for FISH became an acrostic of the life of Christ.

Greek Letter
Greek Acrostic
English Acrostic

Calvary Road Baptist Church

“What We Believe”

As Found on CRBC.ORG January 2004

We believe the Bible is God&s Holy Word. It is unique from all other literature in that, without error, it is the final authority on truth. (2 Timothy 3:16; 2 Peter 1:19-21) We believe in only one living and true God. We believe that in the Godhead there are three personal distinctions: The Father, The Son, and The Holy Spirit. (1 Peter 1:2; Matthew 28:19)

We believe they are co-equal in power and glory, identical in their essential natures, characteristics, and perfection and that they are co-eternal. (Genesis 1:2; John 17:5)

We believe the Bible reveals Jesus Christ as "being the eternal Son of God, became man" (Hebrews 2:16; John 1:14; Luke 1:35)

We believe that Jesus reveals to us the nature of God and teaches us about our own nature, which is utterly sinful. Our sin separates us from God, who created us to have fellowship with Him. The Bible teaches us that no amount of "good works" will ever make us acceptable to God (Romans 5:6-8)

We believe the Bible teaches that God extends grace, though we do not deserve it, can not earn it, and can never repay it, through the death and resurrection of His Son (John 3:16)

We believe that Jesus Christ is God born a man. We believe that He lived a sinless life and died to pay the penalty for our sins. He rose bodily from the grave and gives eternal life to those who believe in Him. (Acts 16: 31; Romans 10:9,10)

As believers, we depend upon the Holy Spirit to do what we could never do before; bring glory to God and love and serve men. (Ephesians 5:23; Ephesians 2:8-9).

Third Century Events

• At beginning of century, Edessa (Urfa in modern Turkey) becomes first Christian state.

• Emperor Septimus Severus (202-211) persecutes; forbids conversion to Christianity. Then a generation of peace for the church. Amazing growth and spread of faith continues and church buildings begin to be built.

• North Africa a key Christian center. Egypt alone has a million Christians by the end of 3rd century. Carthage and Alexandria leading centers of Christian theological development with such figures as Origen, Tertullian, Clement of Alexandria.

• AD 248 the 1,000th anniversary of Rome but all is not celebration as threats to the empire increase from neighboring populations on borders.

• The first empire-wide persecution instituted under Decius in AD 250. Everyone must offer pagan sacrifice and show certificate of proof.

• Church has to deal with the difficult problem of how to handle the "lapsed"--those who relented during the persecution and now want back into the church.

• Church problems not only political. Intellectual attacks must also be answered. Porphyry writes Against the Christians attacking apostles, church leaders, Gospels and Old Testament. Origen around 245 answers attack of Celsus written 70 years earlier and apparently still a threat to the church.

• The role of the bishop continues to grow in strength.

• Before 300 Anthony goes into desert as a hermit, an important early step in development of monasticism--which will be a kind of protest movement against worldly Christianity and an alternative approach to spiritual commitment.


  • Percent Christian: 10.4%
  • Breakdown: 66.4% nonwhite, 33.6% white
  • Evangelization: 35% of world
  • Scriptures: 10 languages
  • Total martyrs since AD 33: 410,000 (0.5% of all Christians ever; recent rate 1,540 per year)

Source: David Barrett




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