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While the Apostles were still alive, some congregations began to introduce heretical teachings, which ultimately resulted in the practices of mainstream Christianity varying greatly from those of the early Church.
Deceptive teachers appeared to represent Christ at a time when many lacked access to any significant education. To the unschooled believers of that time, their teachings probably sounded correct. Many may not have even realised their errors and misguided motives.
For example, the Apostle John, believed to be the last survivor of the original 12 disciples, wrote of a person called Diotrephes who was rejecting John's emissaries and excommunicating faithful members (3 John 9-10).
With John's passing, reliable eyewitness accounts of events in the Church largely ceased. We are left with confusing and contradictory accounts of the next several centuries, with the lack of information being compounded by the persecution of the Church.
Nero (A.D. 54-68) blamed Christians in Rome for burning the city, and when Emperor Domitian (81-96) demanded citizens of the empire worship him as a god, the Christians and Jews who refused to comply were vigorously persecuted. The Jewish revolts against Roman rule resulted in the Emperor Hadrian (117-138) razing Jerusalem and building a new city that Jews were forbidden to enter. He also banned the observance of the Sabbath.
From the scanty historical records available, it appears that during this time, in order to avoid punishment, a significant number of Christians tried to avoid identification with Judaism, transitioning from the teachings of the Apostles to an anti-Jewish religious philosophy.
The Church historian, Eusebius, reporting on the Council of Nicaea (325), described the debate between Polycarp, a disciple of the Apostle John who urged Christians to continue to keep the Passover as a memorial of Christ's death, and Anicetus, bishop of Rome (155-166), who advocated a celebration of Christ's resurrection on Easter Sunday. Later, bishop Victor I of Rome (189-199) issued an ultimatum that all were "to follow the Sunday practice of the Roman church…" (Norbert Brox, A Concise History of the Early Church, New York, 1996, p.124).
The Roman Emperor Constantine (306-337) decreed those who refused to follow the Roman church's lead were heretics and to be excommunicated. An excerpt from a letter showed the depth of his feelings regarding practices he considered "Jewish, "Strive and pray continually that the purity of your soul may not…be sullied by fellowship with the custom of these most wicked men… All should unite in…avoiding all participation in the perjured conduct of the Jews" (Eusebius, Life of Constantine 3, 18-19, Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers and Hendrickson, Grand Rapids, 1979, second series, Vol. 1, pp. 524-525).
"In 321 Constantine introduced Sunday as a weekly day of rest for the society which he had Christianized as part of his religious policy, and on it no work was done …” (Brox, p. 105). Robin Fox, lecturer in ancient history at Oxford University states that, "In the 430s, the Christian Council of Laodicea ruled in detail against Christian observance of the Jewish Sabbath…and their keeping of Jewish festivals" (Pagans and Christians, Knopf, New York, 1987, p. 482).
Charles Guignebert, Professor of the history of Christianity at the University of Paris, observed: "Contemplate the Christian Church at the beginning of the fourth century…and some difficulty will be experienced in recognizing..the community of Apostolic times…" (The Early History of Christianity, Twayne, New York, 1927). British historian, Paul Johnson adds, "Many Christians…referred to Christ 'driving his chariot across the sky': they held their services on Sunday, knelt towards the East and had their nativity-feast on 25 December, the birthday of the sun at the winter solstice…” (A History of Christianity, Atheneum, New York, 1976, pp. 67-69).
While the practices of the Apostles were being banned, traditions from other religions were being incorporated and relabeled as Christian. "...The ancient sign of life, the ankh, which the gods had carried in their sculptures for thousands of years, was easily transformed into the Christian cross; the figure of Isis nursing her child Horus…became the figure of the Virgin with Jesus at her breast…Similarly, 25 December, now Christ's birthday, was also the day of Sol Invictus' festival . . . celebrated by cutting green branches and hanging little lights on them, and presents were given out in the god's name…" (John Romer, Testament: The Bible and History, Henry Holt and Co., New York, 1988, pp. 230-231).
During these early centuries, Christianity was radically transformed. Ecclesiastical leaders ignored God when He warned: "Take heed to yourself…that you do not inquire after their gods, saying, 'How did these nations serve their gods? I also will do likewise.' You shall not worship the LORD your God in that way… Whatever I command you, be careful to observe it; you shall not add to it nor take away from it" (Deuteronomy 12:30-32).
The Apostles understood God's instruction and steadfastly resisted the kind of changes that later infiltrated the Church. But what is equally regrettable is that, by abandoning the practices of Jesus and the Apostles, so many are missing out on a fuller understanding of true Christianity and the knowledge of God's great plan of salvation for men and women everywhere.
The Good News Magazine (Nov-Dec 1997)