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The Early Church: Western and Eastern

May 05, 2023
By Bassam M. Madany

The Christianity that is most familiar to us in North America is Western Christianity. By this term I mean that the vast majority of Christians in this continent, can trace their background to either the? Roman Catholic Church, or to the various Protestant Churches that came out of Rome early in the 16th Century.

In 312 AD, the Roman Emperor Constantine embraced the Christian religion. In 313, he published the Edict of Milan, that ended the persecution of Christians in the Empire. He chose Byzantium as his capital in 323, and renamed it, Constantinople (the city of Constantine.)

In 325, he called the Great Council of Nicea which defined the orthodox faith of the Church in a document known as the Nicene Creed.

Eventually, the Roman Empire was divided between the Western Empire, with Rome as its capital, and the Eastern Empire, with Constantinople as its capital. The language used in the Eastern Empire (known also as the Byzantine Empire) was Greek, while the language of the Western Empire continued to be Latin.

In the fifth century AD, the barbarians sacked Rome. That event marked the beginning of the end of the Western Roman Empire. However, the Western Church survived. It was this Church that experienced the event known as the Reformation (1517.) Thus, both Roman Catholics and Protestants trace their history back to the Western Church. But this is not the whole story about the Universal Christian Church.

The Easter Roman Empire lasted another one thousand years after the fall of Rome. In 1453, the Ottoman Turks conquered Constantinople, and renamed it, Istanbul. It remained the capital of the Ottoman Empire until the 1920s.

The story of the Church in the East is quite complicated. During the First Century AD, it was understood among Christians that the rank or position of an apostle was unique, and that it ceased to exist after the death of the apostle John. Most of the apostles were not only leaders of the church, but served as channels of God?s revelation. Their writings are preserved in the New Testament.

Quite early in the subsequent centuries, the First Century form of church government composed of Elders and Deacons (with some Elders serving as teaching or preaching Elders) gradually gave way to episcopalianism. The Greek word episcopus literally means, supervisor, and is transliterated, bishop. It was practically synonymous with the Hebrew word, elder. Christian church leaders in large metropolitan centers, began to assume the title of Patriarch or Archbishop. There were five important centers in the early church: Jerusalem, Antioch, Alexandria, Rome, and Constantinople. The bishops in these cities were known as Patriarchs, and their specific ecclesiastical territory, as a patriarchate.

Eventually, the attempt of one patriarch (the Bishop of Rome) to assume the position of Head (or Pope) of the Universal Church, gave rise to the great division or schism of the Church. The Western Church recognized the sole leadership of the Pope in Rome; the Eastern Churches continued to recognize the historic leadership of their particular patriarchs in the East. This schism became final very early in the Second Millennium (1054).

The story of the Church in the East is even more complicated!

Let us go back to the Council of Nicea (325 AD). The great controversy that occasioned the convening of the first General or Ecumenical Council of the Christian Church was centered around the true doctrine of the Person of Jesus Christ. Arius, a presbyter in the church at Alexandria, propounded the theory that our Lord was a created being. He denied the clear teachings of the Bible such as in Psalm 2, Psalm 110, John 1, Hebrews 1, Ephesians 1, Colossians 1, and Revelation 1. Another Alexandrian presbyter, Athanasius (293-373,)defended the Biblical teaching about the Messiah, by stressing both the deity and humanity of Jesus Christ. His position was accepted by the Council, and the Creed that was issued at Nicea, is known as the Nicene Creed. Since that time, it became the standard of Orthodoxy in Christianity. The teachings of Arius became known as Arianism, and his followers were called, Arians. They were considered as heretics. Arianism spread among the Barbarians who later on invaded Rome, Spain, and North Africa.

It must be noted that delegates from of both the Western and Eastern parts of the Universal Church were at Nicea. The Council of Nicea dealt primarily with the deity of the Lord Jesus Christ. The discussions within the Church relevant to the relationship between the human and divine natures of Jesus Christ, led to further divisions. These occurred within the Byzantine Empire and the Eastern Orthodox Church.

Several Ecumenical Councils took place after Nicea, Council of Constantinople (381,) Council of Ephesus (431,) and Council of Chalcedon (451.) At this meeting, Christian Orthodoxy was further defined as to declare that, since his incarnation, the Lord Jesus Christ possessed two natures, divine and human. That also meant that our Lord had two wills, divine and human, but he remained one Person. Later on, this belief was set forth in a creed known as the Athanasian Creed. This creedal document is recognized only in the West, and is also known by its Latin name, Symbol Quicunque; (its opening words are: " Whosoever will be saved."

Rather than consolidating the unity of the Church, Chalcedon became the occasion for new divisions. Some church leaders, while strongly adhering to the deity of Jesus Christ, nevertheless defended the thesis that he possessed only a divine nature. They were known as the Monophysites. They were very prominent in Egypt and in Syria. Other church leaders, endeavoring to take full account of the Biblical teachings about Jesus Christ, went to the other extreme. They so described the two natures and wills of the Messiah as to make him almost two persons. They were called the Nestorians, i.e., followers of Bishop Nestorius of Constantinople, who was the champion of this teaching.

The Monophysite and Nestorian Churches were declared heretical by the Eastern Orthodox Churches. It is very unfortunate that the Orthodox party used also the arm of the Byzantine Empire to persecute those Christians who had not accepted the Chalcedonian formulation of the doctrine of the Lord Jesus Christ.

The Eastern Churches fall into two major categories:

  • The Chalcedonian Branch. It comprises the Orthodox Church, which was the State Church of the Byzantine Empire. Its territory included many parts of the Middle East, the Balkans, and Russia.
  • The Non-Chalcedonian Churches, have the following distinctive names within?well-recognized geographical regions of Africa and Asia:
    • The Coptic Church: Egypt, Sudan, and Ethiopia.
    • The Jacobite Church: Syria.
    • The Nestorian Church: Mesopotamia (Iraq).
    • The Armenian Church: Armenia, Middle East, and the Diaspora.
    • The Saint Thomas Church: India.
    • The Maronite Church: Lebanon.
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