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CHAPTER IX.

THE DEVELOPMENT OF THE CHURCH.

EVEN in Jesus’ lifetime there was a Christian fellowship in the ideal sense of the word, the number of all those who recognized Him as the Lord, as their Head, and kept His commandments in their daily life. But there was no coherence, no organization. These followed only after Jesus’ death, under the impression produced by the appearances and under the guidance of the apostles. We cannot fix any exact date, but we may look upon the return of the disciples to Jerusalem in expectation of the second advent of Jesus in the place where He died as the decisive occurrence.

The Christian Church is the child of enthusiasm. The less likely we are to imagine this as we look at the Church to-day, the greater the importance of reminding ourselves of this fact. The Church originated in a hero worship—theologians call it Faith the truest and the purest that has ever been. It united all the worshippers indissolubly together and created the new forms quite of itself. They were the tokens of the same love. Jesus Himself and 128none other was the centre of the new community, present in the veneration, the love, the enthusiasm, the faith of His disciples. The watchword of the brethren in its simplest form was just this: Jesus is the Lord—with Him through life or death into the kingdom of heaven; without Him we are lost. All the feelings of love and reverence for the nation, for the family, for friends, cherished in each individual soul, were now uprooted and transferred to Jesus and His followers. The saying of Jesus, “He that is not with Me is against Me,” was now fulfilled in all its practical consequences.

The common faith immediately finds utterance in confession. Faith in Jesus as the Messiah is still in the background during His lifetime. Jesus forbade His disciples to speak of it. He had asked men to receive Him simply as sent by God. Now the formal confession “Jesus is the Messiah” becomes the distinctive mark between friend and foe. This confession rested at first on the unique impression made by Jesus the Saviour. It then acquired consistency and certainty by means of the appearances, and culminated in the hope that He should come again in glory on the clouds of heaven to inaugurate the Messianic kingdom. For faith in the Messiah was hope for the future. Jesus had not yet been Messiah. He had merely been a candidate for the office. Hence they spoke of the approaching advent of the Messiah—not of His return. Thus there crept into the confession, through this element of hope, something that was uncertain and yet certain, an anxiety, a yearning, a longing. In reality it could only find expression in enthusiasm. A terrible fact—129death—seemed to contradict it. The appearances brought comfort, but along with it new questions and perplexities. The expectation of the advent in the immediate future placed men’s minds in a state of perpetual tension. Thus this confession of the Messiah was no mere theological formula, but the expression of a very disturbed and stormy frame of mind; and only thus in connection with all that rich spiritual experience and longing and love and courage did the confession of belief in Jesus, who lives in spite of His death and shall come again in glory, create the Church.

Faith is enthusiastic. Those who are enthusiastic for Jesus are ipso facto friends and brothers. Wherever enthusiasm is genuine, it is satisfied with a minimum of outward forms. Wherever an extensive apparatus of forms and ceremonies is counted necessary and holy, there as a rule enthusiasm has already beaten a retreat. At first enthusiasm embraces every one in a similar state with open arms. Herein we may discover the explanation of the fact that the early Church exhibits rather an enthusiastic than a legal character. All manifestations of anything extraordinary were reckoned the surest sign of a disciple: above all else the speaking with tongues. The impression made by the story of what Jesus did and of His appearances was so great that it often happened that not only believing disciples but strangers and new comers who were present fell into an ecstatic condition as they listened—an indubitable sign that they were brethren, as God had vouchsafed the Spirit unto them. So great was their joy, their gladness, that articulate speech formed no adequate expression 130for the overflowing enthusiasm. It could only find vent in stammering and in stuttering and in inexpressible sighs. In accordance with the psychology of that age these phenomena were immediately ascribed to supernatural causation. They were in truth simply the expression of a mystic state of psychical exaltation. The mystical element in religion had become a living reality. Yet this talking with tongues was never an isolated phenomenon. The enthusiasm of the disciples found vent in deeds as well, such deeds as man only accomplishes in extraordinary times. Through the migration from Galilee to Jerusalem a great number of the disciples had lost the means of earning their daily bread and had sunk into poverty. Without the support of their friends in Jerusalem, especially of some rich men among them, they would have actually starved. So it came to pass that the richer brethren gave the poorer so generous a share of their earnings and their possessions that the legend of the universal communism of the early Church arose in later times. Many a man in his enthusiasm sold his fields and brought the money to the apostles at Jerusalem to be divided amongst the poor. Charity was exhibited on an unbounded scale. Men gave of their own in so heroic a fashion that the rigid conception of property was actually shaken, and it was revealed that there lay in the words of Jesus a power to change the outer forms of life.

All this enthusiasm was crowned by the heroism of the martyrs. There is an early Christian hymn:

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“Let them take our life,

Goods, honour, child and wife:

Let all these go.

Yet is the gain not theirs:

The kingdom still is ours.”

These simple fishermen and artizans of Galilee surrendered their all, even their lives, and with a glad courage, that shrank not from death itself, set the seal upon their discipleship of Jesus. They translated Jesus’ words into deeds and accounted death for nought. The first community of believers was welded together by the blood of the martyrs far more than by the speaking with tongues. But this was all the organization that existed thus far. He that spoke with tongues of Jesus, he that for His sake gave all his belongings to the poor and died for Him, was His disciple; of that there could be no doubt. No outer sign was necessary.

And yet an outer form did come to be needed for the whole community. In the first period of its development Christianity existed as a sect (heresy). The metamorphosis from sect into Church was a very gradual process. Step by step the Christian sect separated itself from the Jewish Church. By slow degrees it emerged from its obscurity into publicity. But it was only in the reign of Constantine that the transformation was completed. At first it was a sect, and nothing but a sect. No one thought of leaving the Jewish Church. All shared in the public worship of the Church and were subject to the public discipline. But the community lived its own life hidden from the public gaze. The earliest services of the Christian Church were secret conventicles, meetings in the house 132of a friend with closed doors. We need but read the closing words of the Gospels, or the 15th chapter of the Acts, if we want proofs of this. Even the missionary work of the apostles was in part secretly carried on, and Jesus Himself had said, “Whatsoever ye have spoken in darkness . . . . and that which ye have spoken in the ear in closets.” Secret assemblies then such were the meetings at which the Spirit was given, at which the prophets prophesied, at which “all things were in common,” and every meal a Supper of the Lord. Punishment and imprisonment, even death itself, were the inevitable consequences of any appearance in public. They ventured forth, it is true, again and again, but again and again they met with stern repression. For the Scribes in the Sanhedrim aimed at nothing less than the complete extinction of the sect. It was this policy of coercion which forced the Christians into the position of revolutionaries both in Church and State. We Christians of to-day should ever remember that our earliest forefathers were sectarians, like the Anabaptists in the time of the Reformation, and that they only managed to exist by constant opposition to the State Church.

Their life as sectaries imparted a sectarian character to the outer forms current among the brother hood. Every one free from suspicion was, it is true, allowed ready access to the meeting-place of the brethren. But admission to the brotherhood itself was only granted after the observance of due formalities. This was the place occupied by baptism. Baptism was no original Christian institution, but was borrowed from the disciples of John with one addition. By the utterance of the name of Jesus, a 133Christian character was imparted to the rite. We have no tradition as to the use of baptism in the earliest times. Its meaning is contained in the old expression, “Baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.” It was preceded by a profession of faith, a confession of sins and prayer to Jesus, then the pure water cleansed body and soul alike, and when the disciple came forth from the water, he was accounted pure and a brother.

As yet no instruction preceded baptism. It was not necessary. The confession of faith in the Messiah was so simple. But as a rule adults only were baptized. Had not Jesus promised children the kingdom of God without laying down any further condition? The baptized now shared in the meals of the brethren. The chief meal was always, or at least frequently, connected with the repetition of a portion of the account of the Last Supper. At the same time they would speak of the blessing of the death of Jesus, and rejoice at the thought of His coming again. But the baptized were also subject to the strict discipline of the brethren. Unworthy members were excluded either permanently or for a time. He especially who was a cause of offence to the little society was compelled to leave the community. As far as possible the judgment was to be given without partiality or respect of persons, even the most important members, the ‘hands and the feet’ of the society, were to be put forth. Either the apostles or the prophets or the community as a whole were to pass the sentence. It was then counted to be passed by Jesus Himself, for His real presence in every assembly, were it but of two or three, was firmly believed in by 134all. Lastly, the apostles, prophets and teachers, secured a certain amount of connection between the scattered congregations by their constant journeys from the one to the other. Wherever they appeared they stood in God’s stead. They conveyed the collections to their right destination, they fostered the brotherly love both of individuals and of churches for each other, but they were always reckoned as the servants of the community, not as its masters.

The foundation of the sect, however, brings about the first great change in the new religion. It can be traced in a certain increasing rigidity both without, where it assumes the shape of exclusiveness, and within, where it becomes legality. Between the brethren and those that are without, an impassable barrier has been set up by the institution of baptism and the profession of faith in the Messiah.

The words ‘orthodox’ and ‘unorthodox’ come to be used as shibboleths, and take the place of the distinctive mark given by Jesus Himself:—“By their fruits ye shall judge them.” True, it cannot be for gotten that to do God’s will alone leads into God’s kingdom. But the opinion very soon gains ground that the doing of God’s will presupposes faith in Jesus, and is, therefore, only possible in the company of the faithful. That is the first fatal step away from Jesus towards orthodoxy. Jesus had by preference taken as His types people like the publican, the Samaritan, the prodigal son, who were outside the Church. In people such as these He could trace so much more clearly just the really important things, humility, love, repentance. But in His sect 135it becomes a principle that outside of the brotherhood there is no safety, and that all good works—even the best done by those without are worthless, or at most form a step towards the righteousness which can be reached by the faithful alone.

Enthusiasm and legality would appear to be contradictories, and yet the whole history of sects presents them as existing side by side. Often enthusiasm is but the sign that something new, something exuberant, would fain free itself from the confinement of narrow forms. Amongst the brethren the Gospel very soon became a new law. As soon as the living person Jesus was no longer in their midst, and yet at the very same time His authority was immensely increased through the resurrection, necessarily His every word, even His mode of life, came to be an authoritative standard. So the rules for the missionaries were gradually laid down after the pattern of Jesus’ life, and often they proved to be fetters for the new circumstances. So, again, the new law was now formed for the early Christian community out of the most important of Jesus' sayings, and thereby words of temporary application often received a typical meaning for all generations. The Lord’s Supper was celebrated with a scrupulous frequency, and finally exalted into a Sacrament founded by Jesus Himself. Perhaps, too, the example of Jesus legalized the idea of the reception into the Church by baptism. In the same way faith in the Messiah comes to be claimed as a dogma which must be believed. It is no longer self-understood. In the long run, faith in an absent person can only be maintained by legal forms. Thus, then, this development 136of the sect implies at the same time a diminution of the first freshness, freedom, and originality, a gradual increase of that mere mechanical copying which belongs to the essence of a Church. The whole frame of mind altered. Mourning their Master, they began to fast again like the Pharisees and the disciples of John.

And yet this sect, sharply defined against the world, and with the Gospel for law, was the necessary vessel for the eternal treasure of redemption in Jesus. This was the first body which the soul of Jesus took unto itself in order thence to begin the long journey out from these narrow borders into the wide world. All reverence to the Divine in this brotherhood. Here within this small compass lies hidden the life that is destined to give the world comfort and to inspire it with strength. These rude but strong characters, at enmity with the world, their expectant gaze turned towards the eternal mansions, are called to be the conquerors of the world.

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