The oldest Church

The Antiochian Orthodox Church is the oldest of all the Churches, founded by Saints Paul and Barnabas in New Testament times.

I recently came across a statement on a website saying that the Roman Catholic Church is the oldest Church in the world. I immediately replied saying that oldest Church is the Antiochian Orthodox Church. Here is my argument. I should say at the outset that I am not an expert on church history, and I am writing from memory of my previous reading. If anyone thinks I have got it wrong, and can provide evidence to correct me, please do so.

The oldest local church is of course that in Jerusalem, where the apostles, lead by St. Peter were gathered after the Resurrection. But the church in Antioch was founded not much later, and according to the Acts of the Apostles, Saints Paul and Barnabas went there to help get it organised. It was the first place where believers were called Christians. When I say the the Antiochian Church is the oldest Church in the world, I am using the word Church (capital C) to indicate what is often called a ‘denomination’, a group of church congregations having common fellowship, theology and sometimes administration. The present-day Antiochian Church is wide-spread across many nations, and traces its history directly back to those New Testament times.

The Antiochian church has a tradition that Peter also went to Antioch, either to join Paul and Barbabas, or after they left. Personally, I am dubious about this, since the story in Acts seems to have Peter firmly placed in Jerusalem. It is difficult to separate facts from legend in the period between the New Testament and the adoption of Christianity by the Roman Empire under Constantine, when things became more organised.

Acts ends with Paul going to Rome to pursue his appeal to Caesar, where he is welcomed by the local church. About the origins of the church in Rome, the New Testament has no information, and there is no mention of Peter going there.  Tradition says that Peter was with Paul in Rome, helping the local church, and that they appointed one Linus to be the first bishop. This accords with general practice in the New Testament (see First Letter to Timothy) of the Apostles appointing bishops to be leaders of local congregations. It is unlikely that Peter, as an Apostle, would have taken up such a position.  There is a strong tradition that Peter was martyred in Rome, and that his bones are there.

The importance of Rome as a Christian centre grew over succeeding centuries, partly because it was the centre of the Empire, and partly because it housed the bones of Peter, ‘the rock on which the church will be built’. In the Western Empire, Rome acquired authority over other churches, but in the East it was recognized only as ‘first among equals’. The dispute over the claims of the Pope (Bishop of Rome) lead eventually to the Great Schism of 1054, when the ‘one holy catholic and apostolic church’ of the Nicene Creed split in two, the Western half becoming the Roman Catholic Church and the Eastern Churches calling themselves Orthodox.

In Anglican theology, the word Catholic is applied to those Churches having bishops appointed in a direct line of descent from the Apostles, and includes the Roman Catholic, Orthodox and Anglican branches.

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About David Gerald Fincham

Retired academic scientist.
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