The church at Antioch—in the heart of the Book of Acts—was the first church to send out missionaries in an intentional way. The Apostle Paul was based out of Antioch, and his methods and strategies became known as the Antioch Tradition. The Antioch Tradition was the tradition—the way of doing church—for most of the first 300 years of church history.
Some modern experts on the science of networking consider Paul a genius for starting the “network” of churches that would eventually conquer the Roman Empire. Of course, we know that Paul had a little help: The Holy Spirit. But, its still true that the churches planted in the first century were designed to grow and expand. This is what Luke kept telling us in the Book of Acts: “So the churches were being strengthened in the faith, and were increasing in number daily.”
Take a look at the next three images. Each red dot shows the location of a known church from the century indicated. The growth in those early years was amazing!
Obviously, the “Antioch Tradition” thrived! Paul’s missionary methods caused the church to expand throughout the Roman Empire even after he was martyred. But according to church historians, some important shifts began to take place late in that third century. There were three major “centers” in those years—cities that represent three schools of theological thinking.
Many think the major cities in those early centuries were Jerusalem and Rome because the Book of Acts is really about how the church went from Jerusalem to Rome. But, Jerusalem was destroyed in A.D. 70 and Rome wasn’t overly influential until later.
Three Key Cities
No, three other cities were the homes of some of Christianity’s greatest theologians back then. Carthage (modern day Tunisia), Alexandria, Egypt, and Antioch of Syria were the three centers of theological activity in those first 300 years.
We don’t want to be overly simplistic, but in general, the following represents what took place in those cities that has had a lasting impact on Christianity.
In Carthage, the Christians became very influential in the Roman Empire. They began presenting Christianity as the ideal law. By the time Roman Emperor Constantine came along and converted to Christianity in the early years of the 4th century, this ideal law became the unifying worldview of the Roman Empire. This led to the rise of Roman Catholicism with almost no distinction between church and state.
Meanwhile, in the great city of Alexandria, Egypt, philosophy was the main topic of debate. The greatest philosophers of the day spent a great deal of time in Alexandria. The Christians in Alexandria desired to address the issues and questions of Hellenistic (Western) philosophy, presenting Christianity as the greatest of philosophies.
While some good came from these two traditions, they fundamentally shifted the focus of the church. Much of modern Christianity still feels the effect of their impact.
But, over in Antioch, the Christians continued to do what they had been doing for hundreds of years. They did what the Apostles and their disciples taught them to. To them, Christianity was about historical events more so than legal and philosophical truths. To them, Christianity was about the historical fact that God Himself stepped into human history and provided the way of salvation from sin.
So, their desire was to preserve the teaching of the Apostles and continue to plant and shepherd churches—just as their mentors had taught them.
Read what Church historian, Justo Gonzalez had to say about the Christians who lived in Antioch:
“Since Palestine, Antioch, and Asia Minor were lands where many of the events related in the New Testament took place, Christians there had deeper rootage in the history of the Christian faith than did those in Alexandria or Carthage. For them, the essence of the faith was not to be found in a series of immutable truths which had come down from heaven, but in certain events which had taken place right there, among those from whom they had received their faith. Even centuries after the time of Irenaeus, this could be seen in the theological tradition historians called “the school of Antioch…” (Justo Gonzalez, Christian Thought Revisited, p. 31)
The point is, the Christians in Carthage and Alexandria shifted the focus of the church. The church got side-tracked from the Great Commission as modeled in the Book of Acts. Of course, there have always been some who have maintained The Antioch Tradition, but much of Christianity has been distracted from what is primary.
The Apostles’ Focus
In other words, the Antioch Tradition was focused on what the Apostles had focused on—serving as witnesses for Christ, planting and building churches on the foundation of the gospel of Jesus Christ and His plan for the church.
What would Peter and John and Paul say to us about the importance of all this? Notice the emphasis in the following Scripture passages on the historical nature of our faith. Notice the emphasis on holding to the traditions passed down from the Apostles:
“…You should remember the words spoken in the past by the holy prophets, and the commandment of the Lord and Savior spoken through your apostles.” 2 Peter 3:1–2
When John says “we” and “us” he’s referring to the Apostles:
“We declare to you what was from the beginning, what we have heard, what we have seen with our eyes, what we have looked at and touched with our hands, concerning the word of life—this life was revealed, and we have seen it and testify to it, and declare to you the eternal life that was with the Father and was revealed to us. We declare to you what we have seen and heard so that you also may have fellowship with us; and truly our fellowship is with the Father and with his Son Jesus Christ.” (1 John 1:1–3)
“We are from God; he who knows God listens to us; he who is not from God does not listen to us. By this we know the spirit of truth and the spirit of error.” (1 John 4:6)
Since Paul’s God-given role was to “preach to the Gentiles” (after Peter’s initial work in Acts 10, of course), and “bring to light the administration of the mystery” (i.e., explain God’s plan, purpose and mission for the Church) it only makes sense that we should lean heavily on Paul’s teaching:
“So then, brothers and sisters, stand firm and hold fast to the traditions that you were taught by us, either by word of mouth or by our letter.” (2 Thessalonians 2:15)
“To me, the very least of all saints, this grace was given, to preach to the Gentiles the unfathomable riches of Christ, and to bring to light what is the administration of the mystery which for ages has been hidden in God who created all things; so that the manifold wisdom of God might now be made known through the church to the rulers and the authorities in the heavenly places.” (Ephesians 3:8-10)
What’s the point? What conclusion should we come to? The Antioch Tradition is the Way of Christ and His Apostles. We should walk in it. We should “stand firm and hold fast to the traditions” handed down by the Apostles. We should imitate their methods and forms unless there is a very compelling reason not to.
Do we have freedom to change our forms—the way we do ministry? Of course! No one is suggesting we speak ancient Hebrew and Greek, run around in togas and study by the light of oil lamps. But, if we decide to do something different than what we see modeled in the Bible, we should ask ourselves: “Why do we think our forms and traditions—ones that came later—are better than what Christ and His Apostles used? How can we justify not following their examples?”
Every church and movement of churches has traditions of some kind. The question is: Are they the “traditions that (we) were taught by” the Apostles?
If you’d like to do more reading on these subjects, we recommend:
- The Churches of the First Century by Jeff Reed (available on-line in pdf form—just click).
- Christian Thought Revisited: Three Types of Theology by Justo Gonzalez. [Note: We can’t endorse everything you read in this book, but as this review indicates, the first few chapters are very helpful in understanding the different ways of thinking in the early church.]