Divisions in the Early Church

It did not take long for serious divisions to threaten the unity of the Church. St. Paul lamented the “divisions” in the Church in Corinth (1 Cor. 11:18) — and he feared that legitimate differences were producing illegitimate factions. To depart, in any way, from the apostolic teaching about Jesus Christ was to preach or worship a different Christ. It was a form of idolatry, and so it was the most loathsome of sins. Heresy — the word is now a technical term that denotes the denial of revealed truth, the adherence to a religious opinion that contradicts Christian dogma. St. Pe­ter warned against it in the New Testament (2 Peter 2:1).

This article is from the Catholic Viewer’s Guide to AD: The Bible Continues (airs Sundays at 9/8c). Read more of this fascinating history in Ministers and Martyrs.

The apostolic age saw many threats to Christian unity. They were not alternative forms of Christianity, equally as valid as the Apostles’ preaching. They were counter­feits, as worthless, false, and destructive as phony currency. Most of the heresies that would arise in later centuries were simply variations on themes that had already been evident in the apostolic age. A few examples follow.

Simony is the idea that spiritual goods can be bought or sold. It is named for Simon of Samaria, a strange figure in the Acts of the Apostles (Acts 8:9-24). A magician, he made great claims for himself. Hearing the Gospel, however, he accepted Christ and was baptized; but, seeing the Apostles’ evident power, he was filled with envy, and offered them money if they would share their power with him. Peter cursed Si­mon for his blasphemous proposal, and Simon was subdued by fear. But there is some evidence that Simon persisted in false teaching and eventually established himself as a teacher in Rome.

Judaizing: in his letter to the Gala­tians, St. Paul refuted the idea that Gentiles must first submit to Jewish law before they could be admitted to the Church. Judaizers in Galatia were requiring Gentile converts to undergo circumcision and keep a kosher diet. Paul insisted that these ritual laws had been rendered obsolete by the sacrifice of Jesus Christ. The Apostles meeting in council also condemned the practices of the Judaizers (Acts 15). The problem would continue to resurface throughout the early centuries of the Church, but the movements always remained small.

Docetism: the name was coined later to describe a heresy already evident in the time of the Apostles. It describes those who denied Jesus’ true humanity, teaching instead that He only seemed to be a man. (The Greek word for “to seem” is dokeo.) The letters of St. John deal repeatedly with the problem and prescribe excommuni­cation as its solution (2 John 1:7-11; see also 1 John 4:2-3).

Gnosticism is the name given by later Fathers to the elitist heresies that empha­sized esoteric “knowledge” (Greek gnosis) over faith and love. St. Paul may have been combating these ideas when he warned the Corinthians: “Knowledge puffs up, but love builds up. If any one imagines that he knows something, he does not yet know as he ought to know. But if one loves God, one is known by him” (1 Cor. 8:1-3).

Editor’s note: This article is the tenth part in a 12-part series exploring the Catholic background behind NBC’s A.D. The Bible Continues (watch on Sundays at 9/8c).Check back each Friday for a new entry. As well, you can get The Catholic Viewers Guide for A.D. as well as Ministers and Martyrs, or order both as a set to save 25%.

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Mike Aquilina is the award-winning author of more than forty books on Catholic history, doctrine, and devotion. His works have been translated into many languages. He has hosted nine television series and several documentary films and is a frequent guest on Catholic radio.

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