Unfortunately, as still evidenced today, when the slide down that slippery slope begins, it is most difficult to stop. The third century saw a long sliding away from the Truth. What changes were seen?
1. Change in Church Offices It was during this time that Clergy Class was emphasized. The first teaching of 'apostolic succession' began during the 3rd century. Men like Irenaeus and Cyprian began to teach that Bishop and Elders and Presbytery were different classes of clergy. The power of the Bishop was emphasized.
2. Change in Church Government Of course the one demanded the other. It is clear in Scripture that the government in the church was one as a congregational government. Each cast their lots. A new type of church government began to be taught heavily in the 3rd century. Again, based upon Roman government, the church began to establish the clergy classes and hierarchy system. Though we believe in 'mother churches' today (a mother church is defined as a church that sent out and saw birthed a new church), the 3rd century saw a new role for the 'mother churches'. That role was one of power and dictating. There were 3 great centers of Christian influence by the 3rd century: Alexandria, Antioch, and especially Rome. Paul commented on this in Romans 1:8: "your faith is spoken of throughout the whole world."
That church at Rome was one of the largest churches, and unfortunately was led away by heresy over time. It was in the 3rd century that the 'universal church' concept was first spoken of. Men such as Cyprian began to teach that the 'church' is the same thing as the 'kingdom of God.' Cyprian would go on to say,
He can no longer have God for his Father who has not the church for his mother. There is no salvation outside of the church.
The 'established' church accepted his false teaching and soon those Christians that rejected such and held to New Testament polity were called schismatics and heretics.
The Old Testament system also found rise in the 3rd century 'established' churches as evidenced below:
O.T. Nation-Catholic church/universal
O.T. Circumcision-Infant Baptism
3. Changes in Church Worship The 3rd century saw the rise of a body of singers-those with special gifts that could betterworship than congregational singers. Asceticism with its set days of fasting and such was introduced. Places of worship were copied after the Roman basilica and the fancy churches were born. Symbols such as the use of the sign of the cross was used extensively in the 3rd century.
4. Changes in Church Discipline The 3rd century also saw a change away from Biblical church discipline (Matt. 18). Sinners were first 'excommunicated' in the 3rd century. The sinners were publicly humiliated and the clergy appointed the proper punishment...a long way from what the Bible teaches.
5. Changes in Baptism Up until the 3rd century, only adults were baptized. Neander (a church historian) said:
Baptism was administered at first only to adults, as men were accustomed to conceive baptism and faith as strictly connected. We have all reason for not deriving infant baptism from Apostolic institution...It was then a Bishop of Northern Africa in the 3rd century first baptized an infant (done by immersion-no sprinkling). It was during the 3rd century that baptism was first being taught as a 'completion of salvation.' Baptism was being taught to be washing away 'original sin.' Cyprian in the 3rd century taught that baptism required 'consecrated water' and that "it might become the vehicle of the purifying energy of the Spirit." Cyprian also first taught the possible use of pouring as a mode of baptism...again a LONG way away from Biblical teaching.
6. Changes in the Lord's Supper As mentioned, the Eucharist saw rise in the 3rd century. The Eucharist was first taken to absent members after being prayed over. The unbaptized were dismissed and did not partake (the word dismiss comes from Latin missa from which the term Mass would originate).
7. Changes in the Word of God It was the 3rd century that saw the first great corruption of the Word of God. This is mostly due to the man Origen.
Origen was a genius. he attended the first 'Christian Academy' at Alexandria. It may do good to point out here that establishment of Christian Education Centers where people can 'send their children off to get an education' have hardly had a long term positive affect on this world; but eventually have all ended up down the path of compromise and heresy. Origen held many false beliefs (gnosticism, mysticism, denied Genesis account of Eden, transmigration of the soul, etc). Origen 'corrected' the Received Text and his Hexapla was the foundation for the Vaticanus, Sinaiticus, Alexandrinus texts (corrupt texts upon which modern day translations are founded upon). What a Long way the 'churches' had slipped.
There were also doctrinal heresies continually taught and established.
The bottom line of the 3rd century is thus:
*Origen began a corrupt translating of the Word of God
*Cyprian began corrupting the teaching of baptism and salvation
*And the established church though just in the THIRD century had drifted a LONG way away from the truth. But, our Lord promised the perpetuity of the church and the Truth and men were still preaching and holding to the Truth-Praise the Lord!