II. --Founding and Successive Eras of the Apostolic Church
ON the seventh Sunday after the resurrection of Christ, the true idea of the Christian Church was for the first time realized. From the miracle of Pentecost issued a new creation. The invisible power and purifying agency of the Holy Spirit, symbolized by the rushing wind and tongues of fire, descended with transforming effect into the hearts of the disciples. They were brought to a new sense of their oneness with each other and with their Supreme Head. All that believed became as members of one family, and freely contributed to those in need. They had all things common. This statement, to be sure, does not necessarily imply a total renunciation of private property. That such a renunciation was not required, is clear from the language of Peter to Ananias (Acts v. 4). But the surrender of private property, in favor of a common fund, was at least sufficiently general to be a noteworthy characteristic of the new Christian community. As the Church expanded to wider limits, this order of things very properly came to an end. It should be viewed, however, as a significant image of the charity and large-heartedness which ought perpetually to characterize the Church.
As the child is born into a certain unavoidable dependence upon established conditions, so was it with Christianity. Whatever new facts of faith and life it possessed, it found itself in the old established household of Judaism. Of necessity there was still a certain affiliation with Judaism. The first disciples followed many Jewish customs. A superficial observer would have perceived in them scarcely more than a new Jewish sect. Even by the disciples themselves, the way out of the old national restrictions was but dimly discerned. It was only gradually that they came to the clear consciousness that men could become Christians without in any wise becoming Jews, or passing through the gateway of Jewish rites.
From the circumstances of the case, it followed that the first stage of development in the Church was a process of separation from Judaism. A sudden and violent severance would have been as unfitting as unnatural. Judaism had served as a forerunner of Christianity. It had provided the household in which this child of Heaven was born. Before the distinction between Jew and Gentile should vanish forever, it was becoming that an ample offer of the gospel should be made to the Jews. Even had the apostles had the clearest light upon the relation of Christianity to Judaism, it would not have been wisdom for them to have proceeded very differently from what they did. The course actually pursued bears the most evident tokens of providential guidance. Step followed step in natural order toward the final result. The appointment of liberal-minded Hellenists to the office of deacons; the scattering of the Church by persecution; the preaching of Philip in Samaria; the forming of a new Christian centre at Antioch; the baptism of Cornelius and his household by Peter; and, finally, the transforming of the strictest and most persecuting Pharisee into the most liberal apostle to the Gentiles, -- were so many successive steps away from the restrictions of Judaism, and toward an acknowledgment of the independent and universal character of Christianity. This end was closely approximated as early as the council at Jerusalem (A.D. 60-52). To be sure, even after that date, there was a narrow-minded party in the Church, that leaned toward Judaism. But from the time of the council, the authoritative verdict of the Church declared the Gentiles eligible to all the privileges of Christianity, without submitting to circumcision, or being subject in general to the ceremonial law (Acts xv. 20, 29).
In the next stage of development, the great fact was missionary activity in the Gentile world. The Church extended her borders far and wide within the Roman Empire. Then followed a third stage, marked, indeed, by continued missionary activity, but also distinguished by special attention to the organization and inner life of the churches previously established. Thus we have three periods in the apostolic age, -- the first extending to the middle of the century; the second to the death of Paul (64-68); the third to the death of John, near the close of the century. Each of these periods had its own prominent leader, from whom its developments received a special impulse. Using the terms with proper limitations, we might name the several periods the Petrine, the Pauline, and the Johannine.