Did Jesus mean to found a Church, or visible society of believers, in the world; and, if he did, what was his purpose in founding it? By some it is contended that Jesus did not contemplate any such separate society of his disciples. He expected an immediate end of the world, and aimed only at individual conversions. This, however, is at variance with the whole tenor of the Gospels. Apart from direct mention of a “Church” (ecclesia, Matt. 16:18; 18:17—passages which the objectors would expunge), it seems plain that Jesus did regard it as part of his vocation to found a “Kingdom” in this world (Matt. 13—parables of sower, tares, and so on; John 18:36, 37), anticipated its growth and enlargement (Mark 4:26–32) and the gathering of men of all nations into it (Matt. 8:11, 21:43; John 12:32), predicted for it troubles and persecutions, with mingling of good and evil, and apostasies (Matt. 10:13; 24:4–14, etc.)—the dispensation to be ended by his “Parousia,” or return in glory (Matt. 24:25, etc.).

In consonance with this conception, Jesus is found choosing and training twelve apostles (Matt. 10:13; 12:41, 42, etc.), giving them directions and rules for discipline (Matt. 18:15–20), appointing sacraments (Matt. 26:26–29, etc., the Lord’s Supper; 28:19, Baptism: cf. 1 Cor. 11:23 ff.), promising the Spirit to his waiting disciples (Luke 24:49; John 15:7–15; cf. Acts 2), giving commission to evangelize the world (Matt. 28:19, 20; cf. 24:14; Mark 16:15), promising to be with his people to the end (Matt. 18:20; 28:20). He is a householder who will leave stewards in charge in his absence (Matt. 24:42–51, etc.). How, indeed, could the work of Christ be saved from losing itself in the world except by some form of society in which his adherents were bound together for fellowship, testimony, and labor for his cause?

The function which the Church is to discharge in the world is already implied in what has been said of Christ’s object in creating it. “Church” and “Kingdom” are not precisely the same, for the “Kingdom” is a name for God’s rule in all departments of human life (family, society, business, state, and so on). But the Church is still the one society which visibly represents God’s Kingdom in the world, and it exists for the ends of this Kingdom.

The Church, founded by Christ, and launched into the world, after consecration by the Spirit, through the preaching of the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus, had a wonderful history of suffering and success. From the Jews, who as a people shut their hearts against its message, its spread, at first mainly through Paul’s labors among the Gentiles, and by the close of the Apostolic Age had established itself in most of the great centers of Greek and Roman civilization. Persecutions, terrible in cruelty, had overtaken it (cf. Rev. 2:10–13; 7:13, 14); but this baptism of blood had only purified its ranks and aided its increase.

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It was a difficult situation in which the Church found itself when bereft of the teaching and guidance of Christ’s apostles. The Church had spread widely and had struck its roots deeply into society. But it was helpless and unprotected—a flock of sheep in the midst of wolves (Matt. 10:16; Acts 10:29). The voices of a Paul, a Peter, a James, had long been silent; the Apostle John alone lingered on till near the end of the first century. Its new leaders—many of them, as Clement of Rome, Ignatius of Antioch, Justin Martyr, noble, devoted men—were far inferior to the apostles in gifts and spiritual power. Heresies had developed, as the Epistles show (cf. 1 Cor. 15:12; Col. 2:8, 18; 1 Tim. 1:19, 20; 6:3, 4; 2 Tim. 2:16–18; 3:6–8; 4:3, 4; 1 John 2:18; 4:1–3). Manifold corruptions had found their way into the churches (2 Tim. 3:1–5; 2 Pet. 2; Jude; Rev. 2:20, etc.).

It added to the difficulty that at this stage the Church was destitute of most of the aids it afterwards possessed for coping with opposition and error. Its organization was as yet comparatively simple. There was no formal creed, no recognized canon of Scripture, no council to which appeal could be made. In this condition it had to encounter the brunt of fierce pagan persecutions and, what was even more formidable, the inrush of Gnostic heresy, which threatened to sweep away the whole historic faith in a flood of allegorizings and Oriental speculations.

One of the most interesting things in the study of early Christianity is to observe how the Church met the difficulties which thus gathered thickly around it. Assailed, persecuted, defamed, one thing it had to do was to create an apology—defense; and here learned men who had been drawn into its ranks put skillful pens at its service in refuting calumny and exposing the irrationalities of paganism. A yet nobler apology was written in the tears and blood of the Christians themselves, and in the examples of beautiful and holy lives they set before the eyes of the heathen. The new spirit of self-denying love which Christianity breathed into the world awoke wonder from its very strangeness in that ancient society.—JAMES ORR

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