There were two fundamental errors that separated professing Christians from those who truly represented the continuation of the Church that Jesus built. These errors involved whether or not God's law was still obligatory for Christians, and who and what God is. Errors on these two points led to an ever-widening divergence between the professing Christian church and the true Church of God.
The importance of the law was the major area of controversy from about 50ad until 200ad. It was not finally resolved until the Councils of Nicea (325ad) and Laodicea (363ad) when the Roman state became involved. The substance of the conflict is preserved in the confrontation between Polycrates of Asia Minor and Victor, bishop of Rome, about 190ad. Polycrates was the successor of Polycarp who was himself a disciple of the Apostle John. Irenaeus records that Polycarp had traveled to Rome in the mid-second century to try and persuade Anicetus, bishop of Rome, of the true time of the Passover. Anicetus claimed to have been bound by the tradition of his predecessors since Bishop Sixtus, while Polycarp declared: "He had always observed it [Passover] with John the disciple of our Lord, and the rest of the apostles, with whom he associated" (Eusebius, xxiv).
About 50 years after Polycarp's journey, Victor of Rome sought to intimidate the churches of Asia Minor into conforming to the Roman Easter practice. Polycrates wrote Victor:
"We therefore observe the genuine day [Passover]; neither adding thereto nor taking therefrom. For in Asia great lights have fallen asleep, which shall rise again in the day of the Lord's appearing, in which he will come with glory from heaven, and will raise up all the saints; Philip, one of the twelve apostles, who sleeps in Hierapolis... John, who rested upon the bosom of our Lord. Polycarp of Smyrna. All these observed the fourteenth day of the Passover according to the gospel deviating in no respect, but following the rule of faith. and my relatives always observed the day when the people threw away the leaven [Abib 14]. I, therefore, brethren, am now 65 years in the Lord, who having conferred with the brethren throughout the world, and having studied the whole of the sacred Scriptures, am not at all alarmed at those things with which I am threatened, to intimidate me. For they who are greater than I, have said, 'We ought to obey God rather than men'" (Eusebius, xxiv).
As various controversies raged during the second century, a new approach to church government was to have consequences of monumental proportions. This approach was an emphasis on what was termed "Apostolic Succession."
In the first century, Paul had praised the Bereans for their approach in "checking up on him" by searching the Scriptures daily to see if he was teaching truth (Acts 17:11). He exhorted the
Thessalonians to, "Prove all things; hold fast that which is good" (1 Thessalonians 5:21, KJV). Constantly, throughout the first century, we see an appeal being made to the Scriptures.
But, beginning with the writings of Clement, bishop of Rome, we find a new emphasis. Clement wrote a letter to the church in Corinth about 100ad, probably very shortly after John's death. The editors of Masterpieces of Christian Literature summarize Clement's principal ideas as: "The way to peace and concord is through obedience to established authorities, the elders. Christ rules the churches through the apostles, the bishops appointed by them, and the approved successors of the bishops."
About ten years later Ignatius stressed the same point: "Unity and peace in the church and the validity of the church are acquired through faithful adherence to the bishop" (Masterpieces).
By the middle of the next century the claims had grown so forcefully that Cyprian of North Africa stated: "The focus of unity is the bishop. To forsake him is to forsake the Church, and he cannot have God for his Father who has not the Church for his mother" (Chadwick, p. 119).
These claims were being made to hold brethren in an organization that was rapidly developing into what we know today as the Roman Catholic Church. How different these appeals are to those of Paul and the other New Testament leaders who pointed to the Scriptures and to the fruits of their ministries for authentication (cf. 1 Corinthians 11:1; Acts 17:2). No longer able to rely on a clear appeal to Scripture, second and third century church leaders increasingly based their claim to the loyalty of the brethren upon their assertion of being duly ordained successors of the Apostles and the bishops that succeeded them. While they increasingly abandoned what the Apostles taught, these deceivers sought to hold brethren together by appeals to unity and to the memory of the Apostles.
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