"All the believers were one in heart and mind. No one claimed that any of their possessions was their own, but they shared everything they had. With great power the apostles continued to testify to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus. And God’s grace was so powerfully at work in them all that there were no needy persons among them. For from time to time those who owned land or houses sold them, brought the money from the sales and put it at the apostles’ feet, and it was distributed to anyone who had nee
- Acts 4:32-35
"Our life and our death is with our neighbor. If we gain our brother, we have gained God, but if we scandalize our brother, we have sinned against Christ."
- St Anthony the Great
Imagine being a part of a community where daily you meet with other Christians to depend on each others' compassion, talents and resources, forming a particular type of sub-community within a very hostile, secular community. Imagine living within this community where you are able and willing to practice your God-given talents, even to the point of death to protect and grow this community. This is the way the pre-Nicene, early Church, lived, and this "way" has lived on since then.
Within the ancient writings of St Paul and other saints such as Saint Clement, we know that the Church lived a communal life in every way that they possibly could, building a new kind of spiritual and philanthropic (loving God and neighbor) community that would eventually evolve into a Christian empire of many Orthodox nations.
When love abounds like it did in the early Church, it directly effects all surrounding matter. Love is everything that not only St Paul says it is, regarding patience, kindness, long-suffering, and joyfulness, but it is also everything that St James says, such as caring for the orphans, widows, etc! Because matter matters in the Christian life, Christians have always given everything they have, including their lives, for the sake of their mission. In the first few centuries the Christians became a major threat to the secular Roman Empire and the emperors would often torture or execute them if they did not publicly bow to their god or them as a god.
It seems that many of us today read these ancient accounts of martyrdom with a bit of perplexity, wondering why it was so important not to bow to the other gods, wondering if this entire ordeal (martyrdom through execution) was actually in regards to belief and the retention of the martyrs soul vis-à-vis their decision whether or not to
honor the other gods. In one sense the soul does rely on not committing idolatry and giving ones heart over to another god, but is briefly giving a verbal allegiance to a foreign god mean our heart has been given away? Why has it been so important over the course of Christian history to never even verbally attest to another god, even if we remain loyal in our heart to the one true God?
The theology of the early Church was very much centered on the communal aspect of the Church. The gospel forms a community and to depart from this community was to depart from the faith and the Church (Apostolic succession attests to this). Early Christians were not willing to die in order to retain their belief but to retain the Christian community at large: God’s Church. There was no faith apart from the Church! These Christians had to stand for their faith in front of the pagan emperors for what they were doing, not so much as to what they were thinking or believing. The pagan emperors would allow them to believe whatever they wanted, but they had to be sure the Christians were not a direct threat to their pagan culture, so they demanded that they profess in public that other gods were worthy to be honored in their life.
In the early Roman Empire, community and all organized life revolved around what certain gods could do for the people to give them what they believed they needed to survive. When a new group comes along and says that there is another God, one that is bigger and better, the Romans immediately begin to feel threatened. The last thing the Romans wanted was their community being taken from them by this foreign God of Christianity. The message of the early Christians was that of exclusivity! The Christian God was the one to sustain all life and culture, even into eternity, and, according to the Christians, there was no room for other gods/beliefs to operate within this economy.
A few decades after the death and resurrection of Christ, the Roman emperor, Nero, offered the Church to place Jesus as one of the many gods’ within the public sphere, giving them freedom from much of the persecution of that time. The Church completely rejected this offer. The reason the Church rejected this offer from the emperor
is that the Church did not believe in sharing their culture with other gods. They chose to remain within the catacombs, within their own culture that was completely exclusive to other gods. In the early Church community, there was only one God!
Day by day the early Church became empowered to take on the pagan (secular) society. They rescued the orphans by actually adopting them in to their homes. They feed the poor. They cared for the widows. They even healed the sick! All of this labor created a literal community that required living amongst each other to care for each other.
Looking at the Second Chapter of Acts we can see that the Christians were not just a worshiping community, they were a literal community. They shared their personal property and everything they had with one another. The nuclear family was different then amongst Christians. Each family was a ministry, so to speak, under the larger family of the Church, which formed an entire community...a community that was destined to completely overpower and outmode the secular community.
The early (pre-Nicene) Church was empowered by bishops who celebrated for each particular geographical community. The Church was not so much of a parish (or network of parishes) as it was an occupation of community. The very structure of the parish (or what we can call "parish") evolved out of the missional community. This was by no means a move backwards or some type of tragedy, but it does set the precedence for the tragedy we encounter as a Church much later in history, the missional community becomes quite exclusive to temple-building (see Eucharist, Bishop, Church, Part III for an in depth study of the emergence of parish life). The philanthropic model of “sharing all thing” as we read in Acts, and the caring of the orphans, poor, and widows, as Christ preached as a central part of our calling and even judgment in to eternity, took a turn for major growth in the third century.
Many scholars insist that the Edict of Milan, where Emperor Constantine legalized the Church, was the beginning of this parish evolution of sort. Many Protestant scholars point to this era of history as an “institutionalization” that sent the Church into apathy and heresy, but these scholars fail to realize that the Church evolved its mission much earlier when it transpired into the parish movement of the second and third centuries. The more organized the Church became the more blessings as well as heresies it produced, but this is the nature of the Church up to the time we know of as "The Last Days."
The parish life seemed to be a very convenient transfer into what later became the Christianized (known today as Byzantine) empire. The newly legalized Christian faith that finally blossomed and organized so very well into parishes could now run, if not at least officially influence, the entire empire. Bishops now became heavily involved in the community itself, organizing hospitals, care homes, becoming legal arbitrators (judges), etc. The parish life that sprang from the early missional community went mainstream with her calling.
Well into the 4th Century, the saints continued a belief about community, serving one another in way that is quite foreign to us today. St John Chrysostom himself said,
“community property more than private possession is the valid form of living, and is also in accordance to nature; this state (community of property) therefore is rather our inheritance, and more agreeable to nature” (Homily on 1 Timothy).
Of course, when St John was referring to “community” he was by no means referring to the unbelieving secular community, but the Christian community. In this case it was the Byzantine Empire, which, by the way, was no "communist" endeavor. Communal property and other types of philanthropy were not forced upon the public, rather the public built the empire with the teachings of the fathers in mind. We will take a closer look at this through later chapters, covering the canons and philanthropic mission of the Church.
The communal aspect of the early Church was so incredibly important to Christians that when the parish movement of the Church gained momentum in the late third century, St Pochomius and St Anthony the Great retreated to the desert creating what is called the cenobetic lifestyle of the early Church. This movement is now known as 'monastic life.' The two movements of monastic life and the parish life were in no way polarized movements, rather a compliment to each other in the fierce beast of modernity.
Next chapter we will see some of the proofs on how the empire began to take shape in regards to Christian community. What were its driving factors for economy and spirituality? Was the monastic life really that much of an influence? After that, in further chapters, we will look at the military and judicial might of the empire. How did they determine as Christians, proper ethics and laws for this society God gave them? All important aspects in our day of political and sociological confusion.
Lives of the Saints, The Great Collection - Eight Volume Set, Compiled by Saint Demetrius of Rostov
The Ante-Nicene Fathers, Ten Volume Set, by A. Cleveland Coxe (Compiler), Alexander Roberts (Editor), James Donaldson (Editor), Philip Schaff (Editor), Henry Wace (Editor)
Wealth and Poverty in Early Church and Society, by Susan Holman
Eucharistic, Bishop, Church, by Metropolitan John Zizioul