Outline of Early Church History





The words and sayings of Jesus are collected and preserved. New Testament writings are completed.

A new generation of leaders succeeds the apostles. Nevertheless, expectation still runs high that the Lord may return at any time. The end must be close.

The Gospel taken through a great portion of the known world of the Roman empire and even to regions beyond. (See the Book of Acts)

New churches at first usually begin in Jewish synagogues around the empire and Christianity is seen at first as a part of Judaism.

The Church faces a major crisis in understanding itself as a universal faith and how it is to relate to its Jewish roots.

Christianity begins to emerge from its Jewish womb. A key transition takes place at the time of Jewish Revolt against Roman authority. In 70 AD Christians do not take part in the revolt and relocate to Pella in Jordan.

The Jews at Jamnia in 90 AD confirm the canon of the Hebrew Scriptures. The same books are recognized as authoritative by Christians.

Persecutions test the church. Jewish historian Josephus seems to express surprise that they are still in existence in his Antiquities in latter part of first century.

Key persecutions include Nero at Rome who blames Christians for a devastating fire that ravages the city in 64 AD He uses Christians as human torches to illumine his gardens.

Emperor Domitian demands to be worshiped as "Lord and God." During his reign the book of Revelation is written and believers cannot miss the reference when it proclaims Christ as the one worthy of our worship.






The Lord has not returned as soon as expected, so organization is needed to continue the ministry, resist persecution, oppose heretical teachings, and spread the word. Thus the office and role of the bishop becomes stronger.

While persecution continues intermittently from without, heresies pose major dangers from within and must be answered. Heresies include:

GNOSTICISM -- A kind of New Age movement that claimed special knowledge.

MARCIONISM -- An attempt to reduce the Scriptures--both the Hebrew and Christian Scriptures -- to a few select books

MONTANISM -- A charismatic movement that got carried away with new revelations, prophecies, and judgmental attitudes toward other Christians.

Apologists, or explainers of the faith, emerge to combat heresy and answer the church's opponents. Key apologists include Irenaeus and Justin Martyr.


The churches are not legal and have no public forum or church buildings. Local persecution can break out at any time. A profound public witness emerges as Christians are put to death because they will not deny the faith at any cost. Examples: Martyrdom of 84-year-old bishop Polycarp (AD 155) and a whole group mercilessly tortured at Lyons in AD 177.


The strongest centers of the Church are Asia Minor and North Africa. Rome is also a center of prestige.


The church continues its amazing spread reaching all classes, particularly the lower. Callistus--a former slave--actually becomes bishop of Rome and makes claims for special importance of the Roman bishop.





At beginning of century, Edessa (Urfa in modern Turkey) becomes first Christian state.

Emperor Septimus Severus (202-211) persecutes; forbids conversion to Christianity. Then a generation of peace for the church. Amazing growth and spread of faith continues and church buildings begin to be built.

North Africa a key Christian center. Egypt alone has a million Christians by the end of 3rd century. Carthage and Alexandria leading centers of Christian theological development with such figures as Origen, Tertullian, Clement of Alexandria.

AD 248 the 1,000th anniversary of Rome but all is not celebration as threats to the empire increase from neighboring populations on borders.

The first empire-wide persecution instituted under Decius in AD 250. Everyone must offer pagan sacrifice and show certificate of proof.

Church has to deal with the difficult problem of how to handle the "lapsed"--those who relented during the persecution and now want back into the church.

Church problems not only political. Intellectual attacks must also be answered. Porphyry writes Against the Christians attacking apostles, church leaders, Gospels and Old Testament. Origen around 245 answers attack of Celsus written 70 years earlier and apparently still a threat to the church.

The role of the bishop continues to grow in strength.

Before 300 Anthony goes into desert as a hermit, an important early step in development of monasticism--which will be a kind of protest movement against worldly Christianity and an alternative approach to spiritual commitment.




The fourth century, like the sixteenth, and perhaps our own twentieth, is one of those periods in church history when momentous changes take place that stand out as pivotal turning points in the history of God's people.

The century witnessed major changes and transitions in church relations with state and society. Here are six:

Empire Persecutes Church -- At the beginning of the century the church went through the "Great Persecution"--the last and the worst. Instituted by emperor Diocletian in 305, it was intended to wipe out the church. It failed.

Empire Tolerates Church -- Emperor Constantine professed Christianity and the church was given legal status. Often you will hear that Constantine made Christianity the official religion of the empire. He didn't. But he did restore its losses and gave it favored treatment as one among many tolerated religions.

Empire Challenges Church -- Paganism didn't give up without a battle. Emperor Julian (361-363) attempted unsuccessfully to reestablish paganism.

Empire Adopts Church --Christianity was officially made the state religion under emperor Theodosius IX in the year 381.

Church Challenges Empire -- In a dramatic confrontation that foreshadowed centuries of church-state jockeying for position, Bishop Ambrose of Milan defied the emperor.

Church Persecutes Opponents -- It started off the century as a persecuted minority. By the end of the century the persecuted church had turned into a persecuting church. Its motives made sense. It saw itself as combating heresy, false religion and evil forces. In many ways it was a different church and a different world at the end of this century.

Canon of New Testament confirmed. In the 367 AD Easter letter of Athanasius, and at Councils in 382 and 397, final recognition was given. These do not create the Christian scriptures but confirm what was already generally recognized and accepted.

Millions of new members pour in. Becoming a Christian is no longer a risk, but can even be politically and socially opportune, so the church has to deal with a new laxity in standards of belief and behavior.

Persecuted Church turns into persecuting church. By the end of the century the church that had for so long endured persecution as a minority faith, now becomes a persecutor.

Major Councils - Church now needs to clarify and define what it believes. Long time required to understand and explain person and nature of Christ. Under emperor Constantine the first major council of church held in Nicea (modern Turkey) in 325. Second major Council held at Constantinople in AD 381.

Donatists Arise in 311 - No sooner does the church achieve toleration than a severe rupture occurs within the North African church that would continue for three hundred years. What had been one of the strongest early centers of the church is so weakened it was eventually lost to Christianity.

Major Missionary Advance as Ufilias takes Gospel to the Barbarian Goths in mid-century.

Church Buildings Flourish -- After legalization the church gets big into real estate. Often its great basilicas are built on the sites of what were formerly pagan temples.

Capital of Empire moves to Constantinople -- In 324 city founded. City dedicated on May 11, 330. Rome no longer the center of power for the empire and church begins to fill in the gap at Rome.

Eusebius' Church History --Bishop Eusebius of Caesarea becomes the first significant church historian and gives us invaluable documentation on the early church.

Augustine converted in AD 386. He would become one of the most important theologians in all of church history.





As the barbarians increasingly threatened the Empire, sacking the city of Rome, Augustine wrote City of God (413-426), showing that the true movement of history was the unseen conflict between sin and salvation, between the city of man and the kingdom of God.

Nestorianism spreads in the eastern church, emphasizing a distinction between Christ's human and divine natures. Chalcedon creed describes Jesus Christ as fully human and fully divine, with the two natures existing together without confusion.

As the emperor's power declines, the Bishop of Rome's increases. Pope Leo I (440-461) negotiates and saves Rome from Attila the Hun (452). He asserts authority over other bishops, claiming bishop of Rome is successor to Apostle Peter.

Patrick (c. 390-460) sold as slave at age 16. He later escapes, goes to Ireland where he undertakes monumental mission.

496--Frankish King Clovis converted to Christianity and baptized. Conquers half of France and paves the way for Charlemagne's "Holy Roman Empire."

Church calendar with the Christian year begins to be in place. Cult of martyrs and relics widespread, and glorification of Virgin Mary grows. Incense is first introduced into a Christian church service in the West.

With upheavals and disintegration of secular society, church hierarchy becomes more established and influential.



Percent Christian: 0.6%

Breakdown: 70% nonwhite, 30% white

Evangelization: 28.0% of world

Scriptures: 6 languages

Total martyrs since AD 33: 25,000 (1.2% of all Christians ever; rate 370 per year)

Source: David Barrett.



Percent Christian: 3.5%

Breakdown: 68% nonwhite, 32% white

Evangelization: 32% of world

Scriptures: 7 languages

Total martyrs since AD 33: 80,000 (0.5% of all Christians ever; rate 48 per year)

Source: David Barrett.



Percent Christian: 10.4%

Breakdown: 66.4% nonwhite, 33.6% white

Evangelization: 35% of world

Scriptures: 10 languages

Total martyrs since AD 33: 410,000 (0.5% of all Christians ever; recent rate 1,540 per year)

Source: David Barrett.




Percent Christian: 18.6%

Breakdown: 64% nonwhite, 36% white

Evangelization: 39% of world

Scriptures: 11 languages

Total martyrs since AD 33: 1,950,000 (1.0 % of all Christians ever; recent rate 5,310 per year)

Source: David Barrett.



Percent Christian: 22.4%

Breakdown: 61.9% nonwhite, 38.1% white

Evangelization: 42% of world

Scriptures: 13 languages

Total martyrs since AD 33: 2,540,000 (0.8 % of all Christians ever; recent rate 5,540 per year)

Source: David Barrett