Fear of God in the Early Church
The early church, that is, the church in the Apostolic Era and the first four centuries of Christianity, was very strict concerning keeping the fear of God and holding to holiness by the faithful and the church, and concerning keeping the divine commandments. Therefore it was distinguished for the severe punishments inflicted on the sinners of those times to lead them to God's fear.
In this context we cannot forget the severe punishment which St. Paul the Apostle on the sinner at Corinth, for he said, "I have already judged … him who has so done this deed … deliver such a none to Satan for the destruction of the flesh, that his spirit may be saved in the day of the Lord Jesus." (1 Cor 5: 5) We also recall the severe judgment he rendered against Elymas the sorcerer (Acts 13: 8), and his words to his disciple Bishop Timothy:
"Those who are sinning rebuke in the presence of all, that the rest also may fear." (1 Tim 5: 20)
Actually fear protects people from falling in the same or similar faults. We cannot also forget the story of the punishment inflicted by St. Peter the Apostle against Ananias and Sapphira who lied to the Spirit of God in them. St. Peter did not even give them the opportunity to repent! And the Book of Acts (5: 11) says, "So great fear came upon all the church and upon all who heard these things."
Another famous punishment in the early church was the excommunication of the sinner, which St. Paul the Apostle commanded the Corinthians to inflict: "Put away from yourselves the evil person." (1 Cor 5: 13) There were other punishments for the clergy, which may extend to deposal.
Fear of God made some people confess their sins publicly. Here we recall the Confessions of St. Augustine, which he wrote in a book for all generations. Having the fear of God in his heart he wanted to punish himself by mentioning his sins to everybody in all generations.
God is Holy. He is not pleased with sin and evil, and likewise were His stewards on the earth (1 Cor 4: 1; Tit 1: 7). That is why the church was full of saints, and none entered it except saints, for the church was divided into parts and lines: one for the weeping, another for the kneeling, a third for the catechumens and so on till we reach the part allocated for the saintly who are allowed to partake of the Holy Communion.
Not everyone was allowed to enter the church, as the Psalm says, "Holiness adorns Your house, O Lord, forever." (Ps 93: 5) Therefore the sinners had to stand outside the church pleading to those going in or out to pray for them, and the church used to deprive those from entering the church for years.
Because of this strictness on the part of the church, people walked in holiness and strictness.
The responsibility of the "Ebideacon" that is the assisting deacon, was to guard the church doors so as no dogs or cats for instance might enter, and also to prevent the sinners and the condemned who are under punishment from entering.
The church had no partiality, so whoever sinned was punished with the same suitable punishment, even excommunication, whatever his position or fame might be !
The story of a famous woman sinner:
She was a famous dancer a friend of those who were wealthy or holding high positions. Once she went to the church in her adornment and make up, but the assisting deacon prevented her as a sinner, for it was his duty to prevent sinners from entering the church in fulfillment of the command to put away the sinner from among them. She began to raise her voice in objection till the bishop heard her voice and came out to see what the matter was. And when he knew, he said to her, 'you do not deserve to go into the church because you are a sinner!' hearing this, she promised him not to sin again. So the bishop said to her, 'If you are true in your repentance go and bring all your possessions here.'
She did so, and brought to the church courtyard all her riches: her gems, clothes, ornaments and make up, and the bishop commanded that all things be burnt because the laws of the church prohibit any money from the wages of an adulteress be added to the church money. The woman, seeing all this said to herself, 'If they have done this on the earth, what shall they do to you in heaven?!' Then she humbled herself and was allowed to enter the church. The mere hearing of this brought fear of God into her heart, and she repented, and afterwards became a saint.
St. John Chrysostom and the Empress:
Once a woman came to that saint and told him that the Empress had done her injustice. The saint asked the Empress to do the woman justice, but she did not do. Then one day the Empress went to the church in her procession with her servants and court men, and when going in St. John went out and stood at the door preventing the Empress from entering, saying to her, 'You are not allowed to enter into the church because you are an unjust woman!'
The Empress afterwards causes St. John many hardships, but none may enter the church except saints, and whatever may be the results he will endure them. Therefore St. John Chrysostom used to say: 'Herodia is still asking the king to give her the head of John on a plate!' thus referring to what happened to St. John the Baptist. St. John Chrysostom endured much so that the fear of God might be established in the church, no difference between a queen or an ordinary person.
The holiness of God's house:
The catechumen Liturgy represents in our days the first part of the Holy Mass in which we read the Epistles, the "Synaxerium", and the Gospel, besides the sermon. The church in the early ages used to make the deacon before removing the "Prospharine" and starting the Saints' Liturgy, say, 'No heretic, catechumen, nor unbeliever shall stand here.' And those obey and go out of the church, where only the saintly believers stay to partake of the Holy Communion. Then the door is closed so that none would come in or out; for no one coming late may enter into the church nor anyone may go out during such holy moments of the Mass.
The church was strict in her judgments, so she was filled with holy believers, unlike our days where we are permissive letting the evil and the oppressive to enter the church. Some people may quarrel or insult each other in the church, which matter is not proper within God's house.
When Jacob the Patriarch established Bethel when God appeared to him in that place, he said, "How awesome is this place! This is none other than the house of God, and this is the gate of heaven!" (Gen 28: 17) This verse is found written on the walls of some churches, because none but saints ought to enter God's house, whereas God's wrath is declared against the sinners
Other church rules:
• In the early church which was distinguished with the fear of God, as explained above, the absolution was not easily given by the father priest, but after making sure that the person is repenting and has corrected the consequences of his/her sin as far as possible as Zacchaeus the tax-collector did (Lk 19: 8). The sinful person was given a hard church punishment so that he might feel how heavy his/her sin had been.
• The church never accepted a donation except from money gained lawfully, for the Psalmist says, "You shall not bring the wages of a harlot … to the house of the Lord your God for any vowed offering." (Deut 23: 18) Moreover the Laws of the father apostles contain a list of the rejected gifts that have an unlawful source.
The fear of God was a requirement for the personal sins, and also in dealing with the heretics.
St. Paul the Apostle says, "But even if we, or an angel from heaven, preach any other gospel to you than what we have preached to you, let him be accursed." (Gal 1: 8) And St. John the Beloved says, "If anyone comes to you and does not bring this doctrine, do not receive him into your house nor greet him; for he who greets him shares in his evil deeds." (2 Jn 10, 11)
In this way, through the fear of God, the church was very strict with regard to the teachings, rejecting any strange teaching. Any wrong teaching was faced with firmness and keenness. Local and ecumenical councils were held to resist such wrong teachings and to set the sound creed. The advocates of such wrong teaching were excommunicated from the church whatever their rank might be.
Would that we learn a lesson in the fear of God from the early church!
It is that fear to be learnt which led them to strictness, to seriousness in pastoral care and ministry, and to faithfulness in the least and also in the much, which things helped them keep the faith for us pure and sound and hand it to us as they themselves had received it (2 Tim 2: 2)
In conclusion, after having written these five articles as an introduction to the fear of God, we shall move to a practical point, namely:
How can we attain fear of God?
It is a long subject, much longer than all which is stated above, this will expound in the coming articles – God willing.