By around AD 90—about sixty years after Christ’s resurrection and the birth of the church—Christianity had grown significantly from its humble beginnings in Jerusalem and Judea. Churches planted by the apostles now thrived in cities of Judea, Egypt, Syria, Asia Minor, Macedonia, Greece, and Italy. From the larger cities, the churches continued to expand into smaller towns and then into other more remote regions. A century later, by the end of the second century, the church’s geographical reach had doubled (see map).
Michael W. Holmes, The Apostolic Fathers: Greek Texts and English Translations (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 1992, 1999), 612-613. Used by permission of Baker Academic, a division of Baker Publishing Group.
During this time of great geographical expansion, the leadership of the churches founded by the apostles changed hands from the first generation of believers to the second and third. These earliest church leaders—some of whom knew and learned from the actual apostles themselves—were left not only with the responsibility of teaching their own generation of believers but also preserving and passing down the faith. In fact, they have passed on to us the books of our New Testament, the orthodox doctrine of Jesus Christ, and a pattern of Christian truth that has survived centuries of criticisms and attacks.
Who were these faithful pastors and teachers? The following selective list of early church leaders is provided to help you become more familiar with the faithful fathers entrusted with preserving the Christian faith and Scriptures through some of the toughest decades of church history. I’ve included a link to some of their writings available online. During the time of the church’s infancy, these early leaders stood strong for Christ, Scripture, and the Christian tradition in the face of false messiahs, forged scriptures, and competing heresies.
- Clement of Rome (martyred c. AD 100).
This early pastor of Rome served at a time when the teachings of the apostles Peter and Paul were still ringing in the ears of the early Christians. In fact, some early church historians identify this Clement with the companion of Paul mentioned in Philippians 4:3. After writing a letter to the church in Corinth exhorting them to unity, Clement was martyred under the great persecution of Domitian.
- Ignatius of Antioch (martyred c. AD 110).
While under arrest and on his way to martyrdom in Rome, Ignatius wrote letters to various churches, including Ephesus, Smyrna, and Rome. He challenged the false teachings of Judaizers and Docetists who denied the true incarnation of Christ. He called for unity within the church in regard to the true doctrine of Christ and the essentials of the gospel.
- Aristides of Athens (died c. AD 140).
One of the earliest Christian apologists or “defenders” of the Christian faith, Aristides wrote an argument defending Christianity as superior to all other philosophies and religions, which he addressed to the pagan Emperor Hadrian around AD 125. His apology was widely read and later used by apologists such as Justin Martyr.
- Polycarp of Smyrna (martyred c. AD 155).
A friend of Ignatius and personal student of the apostle John, Polycarp served most of his life as the pastor of the church at Smyrna. He battled heretics like Marcion and advanced the gospel of Christ greatly, eventually suffering a heroic martyrdom in his eighties. He wrote at least one letter to the church of Philippi encouraging them in the faith and sending on copies of the letters of Ignatius.
- Papias of Hierapolis (died c. AD 155).
A famous Christian who, as a young man, learned under the elderly apostle John and sought out the testimony of the other living disciples of Jesus, Papias also relayed information to later church fathers regarding the writing of the Gospels and other New Testament books. Although no complete writings of Papias have survived, we have several quotations of Papias in the writings of other early Christians.
- Justin Martyr (martyred c. AD 165).
After vainly seeking truth in Greek philosophy, Justin converted to Christianity. He wrote several treatises against paganism, Judaism, and false Christian teachers and ultimately gave his life for his faith while teaching in Rome.
- Melito of Sardis (died c. AD 190).
A famous pastor and apologist of Sardis in Asia Minor, Melito reportedly wrote multiple works expounding on the incarnation and passion of Jesus Christ as well as defending Christianity against the claims of paganism, Judaism, and Christian heresies.
- Athenagoras of Athens (died c. AD 190).
Originally a philosopher of Athens, Athenagoras probably became a Christian after reading the works of the apostles in an attempt to refute them. Athenagoras was among those great apologists of the early church who presented a written plea for toleration of Christians to the Emperors Marcus Aurelius and Commodus around AD 177.
- Theophilus of Antioch (died c. AD 190).
The pastor of Antioch several decades after Ignatius, Theophilus is known for three letters he wrote to an unbeliever defending the basics of the Christian faith against common philosophical and historical objections. Although the doctrine of the Trinity previously existed, Theophilus was the first to use the specific Greek word triad to refer to the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.
- Irenaeus of Lyons (martyred c. AD 200).
Originally from Asia Minor, Irenaeus was a disciple of Polycarp who served as the pastor for the church in Lyons (modern-day France). There he wrote a massive, five-volume work, Against All Heresies, in which he demonstrated the true Christian faith and refuted the errors of the heretical groups of his day, especially the Gnostics.
In the chaos of competing theories of the early church, criticisms against authentic Scripture, and attacks on the doctrine of Jesus Christ, Christians can rest assured that the essential truths of the faith were entrusted to faithful men who respected the teachings of Christ and the apostles. Not only did they live their lives for this faith, but they were also willing to die for it. They were imperfect in mind and speech, subject to the foibles of all sinful human vessels, and often in need of correction by God’s perfect, inerrant Word. Yet because they took a stand for the truth, today we are able to read His written Word, the Bible, and worship His living Word, Jesus Christ, with confidence.