One of the earliest unofficial outlines of church doctrine, The Didache, made it clear that Christians should not practice abortion or expose newly born infants to die. In explaining what it meant to love one’s neighbor, it said, “Commit no murder, adultery, sodomy, fornication, or theft. Practice no magic, sorcery, abortion or infanticide.” On these ethical issues, Christians were unanimous.
But other practical issues caused division in the church or required church discipline. When we think of heresy in the early church, we usually think of lofty theological debates over the Trinity and the deity of Christ, but pastors also had to draw lines on a number of practical concerns.
Living with “Spiritual Sisters”
Some monks and nuns in the early church believed they could live together. Monks wanted to be free of housekeeping duties, which nuns (whom they called “spiritual sisters”) could perform; the monks could then spend more time in contemplation and in service to others. Because of their vows, they felt they could avoid sexual temptation.
This practice may have existed as early as the second century. Though it was officially forbidden by church councils at Elvira, Ancyra, and Nicea in the early 300s, it existed long after these prohibitions.
Many church fathers preached against it. Jerome (342–420) said many of these women hid their pregnancy under loose clothing, and he spoke of abortion among these “virgins.” John Chrysostom (347–407) pointed out candidly that many of the spiritual sisters became spiritual mothers!
Some early Christians believed that sins committed after baptism either could not be forgiven or would exact a costly penance. Thus many Christians put off baptism until just before death and lived ...