Instead of celebrating the Jewish Sabbath (the seventh day of the week), the faithful gradually broke with Jewish custom and assembled, instead, on the first day of the week, the Lord’s Day, which they identified with the first day of Creation. They came together to sing hymns, hear the good news preached, make common prayers, and partake of communion. Even before there were written Gospels, stories of Christ’s life and teachings as told by the apostles were recited, and letters from Paul and, later, of Clement and Barnabas, were read aloud. Some of these stories were not incorporated directly into the Gospels, but they continued to be told in the major churches that had received the teachings of the apostles.
Many (most?) of the early followers of Christ were Jewish and naturally continued to live as Jews, observing all the dietary and ritual prohibitions. The gentiles whom Paul converted were naturally reluctant to observe the same rules, much less to submit to circumcision. Troublemakers from Judea insisted that these gentiles were not true Christians unless they became Jews, while Paul and Barnabas defended their gentile converts (though Paul would later have Timothy circumcised to make him a more effective preacher to the Jews).
A council of the Church was convened in Jerusalem at which the Pharisees, who insisted on circumcision, were challenged by Peter, one of the first to have preached to a gentile (Cornelius). Peter argued that it was unnecessary to impose such a burden on gentile converts. James the Just, who presided and served as arbitrator, gave the verdict to Peter and Paul, and the apostles and elders collectively sent out an apostolic letter to other congregations, saying,
“It seemed good to the Holy Ghost, and to us, to lay upon you no greater burden than these necessary things,” that is, to abstain from idolatry and fornication.
This incident has been used as evidence that Peter was not “prince of the apostles,” but Luke’s treatment at the beginning of Acts portrays Peter in the commanding role.
According to the Ecclesiastical History of Eusebius, Clement of Alexandria (in his lost work Hypotyposes) says the leading apostles did not contend for power, but Peter and John gave authority in Jerusalem to James, and he passed the teachings committed to him on to Peter and John. Perhaps more to the point, the apostolic letter follows Peter’s argument.
Once again, we see the model of the Church. The leaders—and not just from Jerusalem—assemble and discuss. A consensus is reached, though probably not to everyone’s satisfaction, and the decision is given by the presiding officer in the name of both the apostles and the Holy Ghost. The early Church, then, although it listened to both sides, was not democratic, nor was it entirely local or congregational. Once the decision was made by the council, it was made for the entire Church.
The problem, however, did not go away. Judeo-Christians continued to complain that Paul was turning his back on Judaism, and the dispute became serious in Antioch. When Peter arrived, he joined Paul in common meals with gentile Christians, but when messengers came from Jerusalem complaining, Peter withdrew, and Barnabas, Paul’s collaborator, went with him. As they say in the South, Paul rose up and stuck it into Peter and broke it off in him. (The same Clement believed this to be another Cephas, one of the 70 but not one of the 12.) In telling this story to the Galatians, the Apostle makes a clean break with Judaism and demands the same of all Christians: “For I testify to every man that is circumcised that he is a debtor to the whole law. Christ is become of no effect to you, whosoever of you are justified by the law; ye are fallen from grace.”
These words put an end to any notion that Christians would ever have to subject themselves to the rigors of Jewish customs, and it would eventually be extended, more or less, to Christians of Jewish descent.
Thomas Fleming is the former editor of Chronicles: A Magazine of American Culture. He is the author of The Politics of Human Nature, Montenegro: The Divided Land, and The Morality of Everyday Life, named Editors' Choice in philosophy by Booklist in 2005. He is the coauthor of The Conservative Movement and the editor of Immigration and the American Identity. He holds a Ph.D. in classics from the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill. Before joining the Rockford Institute, he taught classics at the University of Miami of Ohio, served as an advisor to the U.S. Department of Education, and was headmaster at the Archibald Rutledge Academy. He has been published in, among others, The Spectator (London), Independent on Sunday (London), Los Angeles Times, Washington Post, USA Today, Chicago Sun-Times, National Review, Classical Journal, Telos, and Modern Age. He and his wife, Gail, have four children and four grandchildren.