What was it like to be an early Christian?
At Pentecost, the Holy Spirit descended on the Apostles and they were empowered to spread the Word to all nations. Now, to do this was a dangerous task. The Jewish Priests had just killed God himself. In the early days after the feast of Pentecost the Jews were showing a prejudice against the Christians by not providing the widows with their normal food distribution. The Christians then appointed deacons to help these widows and others in need of help. Saint Stephen was outstanding in fulfilling these duties and some Jews began to accuse Stephen of speaking blasphemy and stirring up many people. He was brought to the council and accused of saying “blasphemous words against Moses and God.” Stephen’s response angered them so much that they threw him out of the city and began to stone him. They stoned him until he was dead. So, from the earliest days of the Church the risks of being a Christian, a believer in the story told in the Gospel, brought with it the risk of unfair treatment and even death. But, there was a reason for this. Faithful like Stephen did not waiver from their faith, and as others saw this, the truth of the message they were speaking spread. People saw the incredible faith they had in what they were teaching. They saw that they were willing to stand as a true witness to Christ even in the face of death all the while giving thanks to God. They knew that there was more to the true life than the bodily life here on earth.
As we read the letters of Paul we also see that the early Christians were a very close community, owning things in common, and living a very self-controlled life. They worshiped together regularly in the secret of their homes and later even in catacombs over the tombs of their martyrs. They were very devout when compared to our modern day life as a Christian. They were about changing the very fabric of the existing culture and the norms of the existing religious practices of the time.
How was the Early Church Organized?
As Christianity spread the Apostles had to come up with a way to administer the Churches. The natural organization was to follow the political division then in place as part of the Roman government. This was by cities. They appointed bishops in each city to be the head of the Church. Then the bishops would have presbyters, or priests as we call them today, to help them. We know that from the earliest days of the Church that the Bishop had the ultimate authority in administrative matters. We have already mentioned deacons who were also ordained to help in the administration of Church affairs.
There were also strict qualifications of those who were to be ordained as ministers of the church. They had to be temperate, have only one wife, be sensible, dignified in their behavior, hospitable, able to teach, not heavy drinkers, gentle, not greedy, not quarrelsome, able to run his own household well and well thought of by outsiders. He was not to be quick tempered, self-controlled, seen as God’s steward and have a firm hold on God’s word. They were instructed to watch over the flock as good shepherds acting as caretakers of souls being impartial to teach the and show all the way of sound doctrine.
The Church was seen as a local community. A community of believers who had to work together and learn to love one anther. They were close knit groups who regularly came together to participate in the eucharist. Their purpose was worship and to support each other in living in the example of Christ. It was a local church, yet it was always the fulness of the Church. Each gathering was a gathering of the whole Church.
The Church is universal with one Episcopate. There are many churches, but only one Church. It is never divided. There May be many bishops, but again there is only one episcopate.
In the Orthodox Church today there are bishops, presbyters, deacons and the lay persons of the congregation. The organization is the same as it was established by the Apostles.