In the second half of the first century, Christians could be found across much of the Roman Empire. The Roman devastation of Jerusalem in 70 C.E. meant that the city lost some of its importance in the life of the church. But by that time there were Christian communities in many other cities of the Roman Empire. These included Antioch in Syria, Ephesus and other cities in Asia Minor (modern Turkey), leading cities in Greece, as well as Rome in the west.
Christians in a given area would usually meet together in the house of one of the members. This meant that most congregations were small. There were sometimes several house churches in the same city or region. There was no central form of organization. Christian leadership was developed at the local level. A common pattern was that congregations were led by groups of people called "elders," who taught the faith and dealt with issues facing the congregation.
One challenge facing the church was maintaining the integrity of the gospel message. The letters known as 1, 2, and 3 John refer to Christians who downplayed the importance of Jesus' humanity and advocated a more highly spiritualized understanding of the gospel. When others did not adopt their version of the faith, they left the community. In response, 1 John seeks to foster community by stressing the importance of Jesus' human life and death, which brings the love of God to people. Elsewhere, the letter of James seems to address a distorted version of Paul's message. Paul had argued that people entered a right relationship with God by faith, not by their works. Some apparently took this to mean that it was not important to do good to the neighbor. In response, James stresses the importance of putting faith into action.
A second challenge was the conflict that arose with people outside the church. Christians were regarded with suspicion by some. Christians of non-Jewish background no longer celebrated the festivals of the traditional Greek and Roman deities and formed their own distinctive faith communities. First Peter tells of local harassment of Christians. Revelation also describes situations in which local Christians were denounced by outsiders. In some cases Christians were taken before the Roman authorities and questioned. They could face imprisonment or death if they seemed intractable in their beliefs. In the first century, however, persecution was usually local, not a widespread campaign against the church.
AUTHOR: Craig R. Koester, Professor of New Testament, Matt Skinner, Associate Professor of New Testament