Early Church Issues

Early Church Issues: Polycarp, An Early Church Father, and Infant Baptism

By Michael O’Donnell, Ph.D.


Did you know that the Early Church endorsed the idea that the ancient 2nd Century text titled “The Martydom of Polycarp” strongly suggests the early practice of Infant Baptism? Polycarp, you will remember, was a Disciple of John the Apostle–who put him in charge, as a Bishop, of the Church of Smyrna.

“Polycarp declared, ‘Eighty and six years have I served Him, and He never did me injury

How can I blaspheme my King and Savior.’” (Martyrdom of Polycarp 9 c. AD 156)?

Bonocore explains: It is well documented that Polycarp was 86 years old at the time of his death. Therefore, if the saint claims to have served Jesus for 86 years, it only follows that he was baptized as an infant. And, elsewhere it is stated that Polycarp was, indeed, baptized by John the Apostle (Bonocore MJ. Infant Baptism).

That blew me away!

Obviously, there is more to the act of baptism then the idea of moral ascent by adults. We know from the Book of Acts that whole households were baptized–to include adults, as well as children and infants, and even slaves. Thus, we have the concept of a Covenant, whereby the whole family comes into the fellowship (ship of fellows) by the one-time act of baptism. The idea that you would leave the decision to follow Christ up to your “believing children” at some future, nebulous date, would have been simply unthinkable, especially to the Jewish mind set.

You see, just as with circumcision, it was a Covenant sign of those who belonged to the household of Israel, beginning with childhood.

Of course, if you were an adult convert, you would have obeyed the Apostle Peter’s instruction to, “Repent, and let every one of you be baptized for the remission of sins” (Acts 2:38). Yes, the normal practice for adult believers was probably immersion. But, when it came to “whole Families”, if the mother and father accepted Christ, the entire family was at once raised up to be believing from the start of the parents’ conversion. A practice still followed in the Roman Catholic, Orthodox, and Anglican traditions to this very day.

Fr. Michael O’Donnell, Ph.D.  currently has a best-selling book WHAT A SON NEEDS FROM HIS DAD, How a Man Prepares His Sons for Life, which offers day-to-day strategies for modeling Christ and teaching responsibility in all areas of your son’s life.


Early Church Issues: Father Knows Best

By Michael O’Donnell, Ph.D.

Before I was ordained, I spent my life as a graduate professor of Human Development and Family Studies at a major University–with an emphasis on Fathering. So you could say I am a bit biased when it comes to talking about parenting. Yep, I value the role men play in helping moms to raise up the next generation of kids. And although our site will have a lot to say about Woman and the Early Church, I want to expressly focus on the early Patristic period and the early Christian Fathers of the first two centuries.

Some of them you know well, at least their names, and others not so much–that’s okay. My writing will hopefully be translated well into the historic laymen’s understanding; in other words, I want to talk to you, my brothers and sisters in Christ, and not the academics among us. That’s why I left the so called “hallowed halls of academia” to have a more accessible dialogue with ordinary people who search the Internet for ordinary answers.

About my title, “Fathers Know Best”–of course this is a reference to the very popular American sitcom, “Father Knows Best”, whereby our TV dad, Jim Anderson, copes with everyday problems of his growing family (first aired October 3, 1954), dispensing wisdom from a father’s point of view. Yes, sexist and outdated, albeit humorous and even occasionally profound, I’m trying to draw a connection between this early Icon of pop TV culture and the so called “early Christian Fathers” of long ago.

Instead of a growing nuclear family, imagine dealing with an ever expanding early church. A church in its infancy, but needing the “milk” of the Gospel and a steady diet of Christian literature from the likes of Clement of Rome, Ignatius, Polycarp, Irenaeus, and Justin Martyr (to name but a few).

In a time when a fatherless generation is returning to their ancient roots of historic Christianity and rediscovering the writings of the “Fathers”, my prayer is that this blog will help aid you in that discovery and burning desire to be connected with an Early Faith for Today that will most certainly provide you with spiritual treasures, both old and new. And so, the journey begins … .

Early Church Issues: Rebellious Teens.

By Michael O’Donnell, Ph.D.

Did you ever wonder if juvenile delinquency was a modern phenomenon? It wasn’t. Early church father Clement’s First Letter to the Corinthians, dealt with rebellious teenagers. Written about A.D. 64—two millennia before the defiant, entitled, back-talking, eye-rolling kids of the 21st-Century, it sheds light on a universal problem.  

No doubt, these were the sons and daughters of the first Christians; the second generation. Today’s mega-church, Willow Creek Community in Chicago, has reported that their second generation of those “seekers”–their kids–are quickly abandoning the faith. Yes, likely they are abandoning faith for different reasons.

Early church experts agree that the young men at Corinth were rebellious, but not so they could feed the flesh. Their rebellion came from their claim that their spiritual gifts should entitle them to receive “special recognition.” They even “boasted” that their special knowledge even exceeded the wisdom of their presbytery (priests) among them.

Clement’s counsel:  envy and rivalry are not by nature Christian and so he helps the young men to grasp the moral loveliness of both humility and order (i.e., Orthopraxy, or Right Government).  Deep within Clement’s letter is an understanding that “Spiritual Gifts” do not represent maturity.  Upon baptism, we all receive the gift of the Holy Spirit–which includes gifts for use in the body of Christ.  Still, these gifts are not the basis for being a “presbyter.”  What is needed is the mind of Christ; the fruit of the Spirit–with its focus on love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control.  To Clement, he might have well said to these young men, that, “Gifts of the Holy Spirit represent only the works of Christ; ah, but the fruit of the Holy Spirit represents the mind of Christ … and so, you see my sons, you need the mind of Christ to properly guide the works of Christ.”  Thus, your leaders have a faith worthy, by both virtue of humility, to be imitated by you.

I pray that our sons and daughters will heed this ancient wisdom and come to know Christ more fully, even as they are fully known by Him.

Contributor — Michael O’Donnell

(See: Early Christian Fathers, by Simon and Schuster.  Used for an historical context.)

Early Church Issues: Gifts vs. Love

By Michael O’Donnell, Ph.D.

Continuing with Clement’s First Letter to the Corinthians, I want to address the concern Clement had about the orderliness (or lack of it) of their worship during Holy Communion.  An issue, you might remember that was shared by the Apostle Paul when writing to this burgeoning, New Testament Church in Corinth many years before.

Early church scholars conclude that Clement was equally concerned with disputes and divisions arising between the “Charismatics and regular ministry” folk.  Even St. Paul had made the observation, well before Clement, that gifts of the Spirit are useless to the Body of Christ (“just a clanging cymbal or noisy gong”) if not guided by LOVE, which according to the Apostle was without dispute the first fruit of the Spirit.

Have you ever seen the bumper sticker that reads, “Please be Patient with Me, God Isn’t Finished with Me Yet”?  Unfortunately, some have used this as an excuse for ill behavior on the part of today’s Christians.  But both St. Paul and Clement are of the same mind:  LOVE is to be the first, discernable fruit of the redeemed. Yes, there is the ongoing and lifelong sanctification of the believer after one is saved, but LOVE is to be the tangible evidence of one’s salvation in Christ.  

Unfortunately, to the immature at Corinth, gifts became the most important things to possess; and these young “Charismatic” men wanted recognition and authority given to them by virtue of their ability to speak in tongues and be both “persuasive and powerful” in their public speaking.  But, again, St. Paul and Clement would remind them that if you are not first loving others with the humility of Christ in character and demeanor, then any and all gifts you may have doesn’t offer the body of Christ anything of eternal value, nor qualify you for leadership among the “Presbytery-Bishops” of Christ’s Church.

These young men wrongly concluded that since they were very gifted they should automatically be made leaders.  Thus, they were no doubt more interested in the praise they could get from their gifts rather than the impact their gifts could have to show the love of Christ. “Isn’t my public speaking better than…?” “To be a true believer you, too, must speak in tongues, like us.” As a result of their lack of orderliness and humility, they became very disruptive and condescending and, most importantly, not loving in the least.

Quite simply, because they wouldn’t follow the example of God’s chosen leaders, the Presbyters-Bishops, they were able to keep the attention on themselves.  They believed by their standard of gifts and talents; those things they thought made for a great leader, they were even better suited for leadership than the old guard. Yes, they had the gifts of God (the works of Christ) no doubt, but they had no visible humility to guide them in making them useful to show the love of God.  

The bottom line, my dear friends: gifts do not represent maturity. The fruit of the Spirit does–of which love should be the foundation for all authority given for being a Presbyter-Bishop in the body of Christ.

Contributor — Michael O’Donnell

(Source: Early Christian Fathers, by Simon and Schuster)

Early Church Issues: In Praise of Order

By Michael O’Donnell, Ph.D.

To conclude my discussion about Clement’s First Letter to the Corinthians, it will be helpful to grasp this particular Church Father’s apparent obsession with “orderliness.”  At first, I’m reminded of me and my own father who would occasionally write on my older brother’s bedroom mirror: “Hell hast no fury like a dad who must clean his son’s room!” To my father, cleanliness WAS next to godliness.

Truth be told, I don’t think Clement was referencing room maintenance nor personal hygiene.  I think Clement was talking about the shape of liturgy and the kind of order for worship the Didache (an early Christian treatise that experts are agreed is from the First Century) records for future church plants. In it we have an actual outline for Holy Communion (referred to by early Christians as “The Eucharist”).

Many wonder why Theophilus, to whom the book of Acts is addressed, isn’t given more information about early Christian worship. The book of Acts, written by Luke, simply records “All the believers devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching, and to fellowship, and to sharing in meals (including The Eucharist), and to prayer” (2:42).  So why not include the same detail as founded in the Didache?  

Theophilus was already a believer and was faithfully attending gatherings of with other believers.  For Luke to provide any more elements would have been redundant.  After all, Theophilus already knew the details described in the Didache from personal and spiritual life experience.  We all know the phrase, “Spare me the details!” Why?  Because we’ve already been there and done that.

And so, for Clement, this order for worship was being eclipsed by modern day innovations from the young men who felt, perhaps, that the gifts of the Spirit should dictate the style and substance of second generation Christianity.  Thus, Clement, and even the Apostle Paul before him, concluded that structure is needed for New Testament worship to be effective–especially where non-believers and seekers were concerned.  

To conclude, indeed, the gifts of the Spirit were to be used to assist in the making a sacrifice of praise and thanksgiving to the Lord, but never to the disruption of the established Apostolic order.  Thus, the Liturgy of the Word and the Liturgy of the Eucharist were always to take precedence. And, that’s what I believe Clement is talking about in his adamant use of the word “order”–put the fire in the fire place so that nobody gets burned.

Contributor  — Michael O’Donnell

(Source: Early Christian Fathers, by Simon and Schuster.)