There have always been divisions in the church. This article talks about sects that abounded in the mid-second century and some of the fallout.
According to Encyclopedia Brittania, the Antonine Era is the period of years between 132 and 180 AD when “the Roman emperors Antoninus Pius (reigned AD 138–161) and his adopted son and heir, Marcus Aurelius (reigned AD 161–180)… The period of the first two Antonine emperors (138–180) was one of great internal peace and prosperity when the sense of security and the reconciliation of peoples was at their greatest throughout the Roman Empire. ”[i]
According to Eusebius, by this time “Like brilliant lamps the churches were now shining throughout the world, and faith in our Savior and Lord Jesus Christ ..”[ii]
Now that’s awesome. A hundred years after the original church Christianity had spread throughout the world. But Eusebius’ comment goes on to lament that “when the devil who hates what is good, as the enemy of the truth, ever more hostile to the man’s salvation, turned all his devices against the church. Formerly, he had used persecutions from without as his weapon against her, but now he was excluded from this he used wicked men and sorcerers for his purpose”[iii]
Eusebius viewed the splitting of the church into sects as the work of “wicked men and sorcerers.” The sorcerers were the Gnostic leaders. Gnosticism has its root in Judaism but came to the fore during the second century. Gnosticism says that there is “mystical, supernatural wisdom by which the initiates were brought to a true understanding of the universe, and were saved from the evil world of matter. It had a fundamental doctrine of salvation.”[iv]
Celsius, a contemporary of Eusebius, wrote that he saw “Christians divided between the ‘the great church’ which ‘had the same God as the Jews’ and whose beliefs remained very similar, and a multitude of sects, such as Marcionists, Gnostics, followers of Martha, Marcellina, and the Harpocratians who follow Salome’.[v]
The sects mentioned above were considered heretics. For example, Marcion believed in Jesus as the Savior and Paul as his apostle. However, he didn’t believe in the old testament or the God of Israel. Marcellina had an unusual tack: that Jesus was an admirable figure but one that could be surpassed.
These sects were very contentious with each other.
Here’s an interesting tidbit: “Eusebius regarded the Antonine era as the period of breakthrough when Christianity shook off its Jewish millenarianism preached by men of “limited intelligence,” such as Papias, and began to enter its true Gentile inheritance”[vi]
That alone signifies that Eusebius recognized a departure of “the great church” which he espoused and original Christianity. Eusebius saw this as a good thing, but the whole thing looks to me to smack of snobbery. Eusebius, an educated man in the philosophy of the times, appears to me to be looking down on the practical nature of Christianity given to the common man and appears to celebrate the second-century church’s embrace of Hellenization of the church with all of the implications that involves. I think that is a side effect of the divisions of the time and a clever ploy of the adversary to infiltrate and change the core values of the church itself.
The simple, practical nature of the original church is being dismissed here by Eusebius and others representing the later church and Hellenization of the church is taking over.
[ii] Eusebius, HE, IV.7.1
[iv] A HISTORY OF THE CHRISTIAN CHURCH, Williston Walker, Scribners, New York, 1959, p. 52
[v] THE RISE OF CHRISTIANITY, W.H.C. Frend, Fortress House, Philadelphia, 1984, p. 194