Early Christians gathered on Sunday for a ceremony of thanksgiving that included elements of Jewish traditions and Christian beliefs. They celebrated the sacred rite of the Eucharist, in which they consumed bread and wine, taken in memory of Jesus, whose last supper is described in the Gospels.

Diagram titled the Christian clergy.
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Over time, the clergy of the Christian church developed into a hierarchy. What are some positive and negative elements that may arise from this type of organizational structure?

The Role of Women

Many women welcomed Christianity's promise that in the Christian faith, “there is neither Jew nor Greek … neither slave nor free … neither male nor female.” In early Christian communities, women served as teachers and administrators. Even when they were later barred from any official role in the Christian Church, they still worked to win converts and supported Christian communities across the Roman world.

The Structure of the Christian Church

During the first centuries A.D., Christian communities developed a formal church structure with its own clergy, or people who conduct worship services. At first, the Christian clergy included priests and bishops, the highest-ranking Church officials. A bishop presided over a diocese, which included a number of Christian communities and their priests.

As the church expanded, archbishops were appointed to oversee the bishops. An archbishop's territory was called a province. This type of organization in which officials are arranged according to rank is called a hierarchy.

As the Christian Church grew more organized, women lost their influence. They could not become priests or conduct Mass, the Christian worship service. Still, they continued to work as missionaries and even suffered martyrdom for their faith.

In time, the bishops of the most important cities in the Roman empire—Rome, Antioch, Alexandria, Jerusalem, and Constantinople—gained greater authority and were called patriarchs. Like all bishops, they traced their spiritual authority to the apostles and Jesus.

Eventually, in the Latin-speaking western empire, the bishop of Rome assumed a dominant position, claiming that the apostle Peter had made Rome the center of the Christian Church. He took the title pope, or father of the Church. Patriarchs in the eastern Roman empire rejected the pope's claim to be supreme ruler of the Church.

Rivalries Within the Church

Together, the clergy, including archbishops, bishops, and priests, helped keep Christianity alive in the early years of persecution. They also maintained order and discipline in the Church.

Despite its strong structure, the Church faced constant battles against heresies, or beliefs said to be contrary to official Church teachings. To end disputes over questions of faith, councils of Church leaders met to decide which ideas or practices the Church would accept. Among the most important was the Council of Nicaea in Asia Minor, where they drew up the Nicene Creed, a statement of basic Christian beliefs.

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Table of Contents

World History Topic 1 Origins of Civilization (Prehistory–300 B.C.) Topic 2 The Ancient Middle East and Egypt (3200 B.C.–500 B.C.) Topic 3 Ancient India and China (2600 B.C.–A.D. 550) Topic 4 The Americas (Prehistory–A.D. 1570) Topic 5 Ancient Greece (1750 B.C.–133 B.C.) Topic 6 Ancient Rome and the Origins of Christianity (509 B.C.-A.D. 476) Topic 7 Medieval Christian Europe (330–1450) Topic 8 The Muslim World and Africa (730 B.C.-A.D. 1500) Topic 9 Civilizations of Asia (500–1650) Topic 10 The Renaissance and Reformation (1300–1650) Topic 11 New Global Connections (1415–1796) Topic 12 Absolutism and Revolution Topic 13 The Industrial Revolution Topic 14 Nationalism and the Spread of Democracy (1790–1914) Topic 15 The Age of Imperialism (1800–1914) Topic 16 World War I and the Russian Revolution (1914–1924) Topic 17 The World Between the Wars (1910–1939) Topic 18 World War II (1930–1945) Topic 19 The Cold War Era (1945–1991) Topic 20 New Nations Emerge (1945–Present) Topic 21 The World Today (1980-Present) United States Constitution Primary Sources 21st Century Skills Atlas Glossary Index Acknowledgments