When the work God has prescribed for a certain saint is finished, God calls him home to glory. Thus the time soon comes when each one of the twelve Apostles is called home to glory. God has just so much work for each one to do, some more and some less, but each one a definite prescribed amount. We can expect then to find a moment in the early history of the New Testament Church when the last of the Apostles is called home and the Church is without their instruction and leadership.
There were, however, men whom God has brought in contact with the Apostles, either through personal contact or through their writings, and whom He had chosen to continue the work of the Apostles. As God has given disciples to Christ that they might spread the truths they learned from Him, so He gave to the Apostles disciples that they might teach the church the truths they learned and might exhort the church to walk in that way. These men are generally called Apostolic Fathers, having lived in part in the same period of Church History as the Apostles did. There were six such men whose names we know. They are Clement, Ignatius, Polycarp, Barnabas, Hermas and Pappias.
We must not expect these men to be the equal of any one of the Apostles. The Apostles were special ambassadors of Christ, the New Testament prophets who received special revelations from the Spirit and were guided infallibly by Him in their writings. This cannot be said of any one of the Apostolic Fathers. They were sincere men and revealed an amazing insight into the truth that the Spirit revealed through the Apostles, but their writings reveal the fact that they are man’s work and not God’s.
From their writings we obtain an insight into the condition of the Church in the period shortly after the death of the Apostles. Taken all together, these writings show us that it was a period of doctrinal dullness; that is, a period wherein there was no positive development of the truth. In their writings these Apostolic Fathers merely repeated what the Apostles taught and made little attempt to explain the meaning and implications of these truths. Their writings can be characterized as a series of Confessions of faith and exhortations to holy living. There are also manifestations of the fact that they did not always understand the teachings of the Apostles correctly. We shall speak of this presently.
The second thing in regard to the conditions in the church that is to be noted from their writings is the fact that it is a period when the struggle between the true and the false church is fairly strong. Heresies were beginning to lift up their proud head with greater boldness. In Paul’s day they were by no means silent, but infallibly guided by the Spirit, He was able to lay them low with the truth. We are thinking for example of the heresy which Paul condemns in I Corinthians 15 namely: that there is no resurrection from the dead. Paul proves this contention to be contrary to God’s word and therefore a lie. Now that the Apostles were all gone home to glory the various heresies begin to reassert themselves and make a stronger bid for recognition. This undoubtedly accounts for the fact that the writings of these Apostolic Fathers is so full of admonitions to walk holily and of confessions as to what is the truth.
Clement wrote and epistle to the Corinthians which makes the above facts very plain. You will recall that in I Corinthians 1 Paul condemns the division in that Church. Some said that they were of Paul, some of Cephas and some of Christ. Paul rebuked them for this schism and sectarian spirit in the church. Very plain it is from the letter Clement wrote to the Corinthians that this division re-asserted itself after Paul’s death. For Clement in it again rebukes them for this sectarian spirit. Barnabus warned the church against falling back into Judaism. His epistle is comparable as to its purpose-not its content-to the Epistle to the Hebrews, wherein the author also warns the recently converted Jews against returning to their Judaism.
Comparing the works of Clement and Ignatius a teaching is found which reveals an existing difference of opinion on a principle so important that centuries later it brought forth a great split in the church. It had to do with the matter of offices in the church. Clement knew no ruler in the Church above the elder. According to him the elders ruled, and no one in the congregation or in any other congregation was above them. Ignatius maintained that the bishop was above the elder. For this he is considered to be the father or hierarchy. We have here the beginning of the form of church government exercised and maintained by the Roman Catholic Church. Ignatius would never subscribe to all the elaborate system wherein the Pope has the last word in all things and is considered to be infallible in his decisions. Yet, his ideas of church government lead to that system. We have always followed the view of Clement, for that is the teaching of Scripture.
One other interesting point about this period is that during this time we read definitely for the first time that the Church worshipped on the first day of the week rather than on the Jewish Sabbath of the last day of the week. The form of worship was twofold. In the morning worship there was the reading of Scripture, preaching of the Word, singing and prayer. The evening service consisted in a common meal followed by the celebration of the Lord’s Supper. This was done already in Paul’s day as you may conclude from I Corinthians 11:17-22, although here it was corrupted.