(A Guide To Understanding What Has Happened In Almost 2000 Years of Church History)
What was the early church like?
Acts 2:42: They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer. Everyone was filled with awe at the many wonders and signs performed by the apostles. All the believers were together and had everything in common. They sold property and possessions to give to anyone who had need. Every day they continued to meet together in the temple courts. They broke bread in their homes and ate together with glad and sincere hearts, praising God and enjoying the favor of all the people. And the Lord added to their number daily those who were being saved.
It should not surprise us that it went so wrong. Jesus told us it would:
Matthew 24:9-14: Then you will be handed over to be persecuted and put to death, and you will be hated by all nations because of me. At that time many will turn away from the faith and will betray and hate each other, and many false prophets will appear and deceive many people. Because of the increase of wickedness, the love of most will grow cold, but the one who stands firm to the end will be saved. And this gospel of the kingdom will be preached in the whole world as a testimony to all nations, and then the end will come.
It started in the time of the Apostle John writing the book of Revelation.
Revelation 2:4-5: Yet I hold this against you: You have forsaken the love you had at first. Consider how far you have fallen! Repent and do the things you did at first. If you do not repent, I will come to you and remove your lampstand from its place.
Rev 3:14-16: To the angel of the church in Laodicea write: These are the words of the Amen, the faithful and true witness, the ruler of God’s creation. I know your deeds, that you are neither cold nor hot. I wish you were either one or the other! So, because you are lukewarm—neither hot nor cold—I am about to spit you out of my mouth.
It follows the pattern we see in the Old Testament: after God delivered his Old Testament people from their slavery in Egypt, one could almost describe the history of the Jews as the history of a people fighting God. There were exceptions, of course. There were individuals here and there who loved God and wanted to live for him. There were times when great leaders moved the people as a whole to acts of faith and obedience, but the overall trend was in another direction. From the time of the Exodus to the time of Jesus, those who were objects of God’s affection were often in rebellion against his plans for their lives.
Stephen, that Spirit-filled Hellenistic Jew, preaching to the Jewish ruling counsel after the death of Jesus, proclaimed that Jewish history was the story of their rejection of God. He concluded powerfully with these words:
Acts 7:51-52: You stiff-necked people, with uncircumcised hearts and ears! You are just like your fathers: you always resist the Holy Spirit! Was there ever a prophet your fathers did not persecute? They even killed those who predicted the coming of the Righteous One. And now you have betrayed and murdered him.
For hundreds of years, God had been trying to love them and lead them, but for most of those years they had been fighting God.
Sadly, the history of Christianity, particularly after the first century, has often been a repeat of the Old Testament story. The church of Jesus began in a great way and had a great impact, but eventually came a drift from the exciting truths that turned the world upside down. Yes, there have been heroic personalities, there have been those with great courage who from time to time rose up and insisted on returning to the Scriptures. There have been people consumed with the mission of Jesus, but there has been much tragic confusion and division because, in reality, many were fighting God and not submitting to him.
Obviously, a short article like this has great limitations in attempting to describe something as complex as more than 1900 years of church history, but many of us do not have even a rudimentary understanding of how we got from the dynamic first century church to the divided religious world of today. The goal is to give you the basic outline.
Period 1. 100-312 A.D. – Growth and Departures
The first century church experienced remarkable growth, starting in a lightly regarded place in the expansive Roman Empire. Within 30 years, it had established strong beachheads in most of the great population centers and in many places between. From a human point of view, the church should not have enjoyed such success, but God had chosen the right time to send his Son (Galatians 4:4: But when the set time had fully come, God sent his Son, born of a woman, born under the law). The gospel was the power of God and the church was indwelt by the Holy Spirit. By the time Paul wrote the letter to the Colossians, he could say that the gospel had “been proclaimed to every creature under heaven” (Colossians 1:23).
As the church moved into the second and third centuries, growth continued, even as the church was frequently persecuted. However, with the passing of the apostles, growth was accompanied by false doctrines. Consider three examples:
Different teachings grew up which tried to rob Jesus of his identity as the one and only true son of God. Some began explaining Jesus to be a man who was like God, and strong objection was made to his being deity.
Another group, the Gnostics, taught that Jesus was deity but not really a man in the flesh. The Apostle Paul had corrected the first view, “For in Christ all the fullness of the Deity lives in bodily form” (Colossians 2:9). The Apostle John had addresses the Gnostics in 1 John, “Every Spirit that acknowledges the Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is from God, but every spirit that does not acknowledge Jesus is not from God” (1 John 4:3-4). Throughout history, groups would rise up and disappear, claiming these false teachings. In our day, there are those ranging from the Jehovah’s Witnesses and Mormons.
The New Testament had taught that baptism by immersion was for the forgiveness of sins (Acts 2:38: Peter replied, ‘Repent and be baptised, every one of you, in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins. And you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit; Romans 6:3-7: Or don’t you know that all of us who were baptised into Christ Jesus were baptised into his death? We were therefore buried with him through baptism into death in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, we too may live a new life. For if we have been united with him in a death like his, we will certainly also be united with him in a resurrection like his. For we know that our old self was crucified with him so that the body ruled by sin might be done away with, that we should no longer be slaves to sin because anyone who has died has been set free from sin.)
But it was equally clear that people who sinned after baptism could be forgiven. 1 John 1 and 2 teach that everyone will need such forgiveness. The second and third century churches clearly taught that baptism brought forgiveness, but they eventually taught that there were three sins that the church could never forgive after baptism, even though they might be forgiven by God (a strange doctrine indeed!). These three were murder, sexual immorality and the denial of the faith.
During the two centuries following the apostles, persecutions of the church came and went. One of the worst came around 250 A.D., with believers being threatened, then tortured, until they renounced their faith. Many did. While some survived, still confessing their faith, others were martyred. After the persecutions, Cyprian, the Bishop of Carthage, devised a plan of penance (works) to restore those who were guilty of the worst violations. Certainly, no such plan can be found in the New Testament, where forgiveness is never earned.
There is no doubt that the church in the first three centuries was under much stress and pressure and that there were some heroic personalities who held to Jesus, but we can see fairly early a trend toward resolving matters with a human logic, not with a careful study of scripture. Such a trend laid the basis for the coming of the Catholic Church.
Period 2. 312-600 A.D.—The State Adopts the Church
The changing attitude of the state toward the church was in many ways the most significant development during this period. After enduring persecution from the government for most of history, the church first found itself in a position of being tolerated, then being granted more privileges and finally being officially embraced by the Roman government (395 A.D.). So complete was the relationship between church and state, of which the emperor himself became the initiator through the ecumenical councils, in which the bishops came together to define and agree on doctrine. A worse development may not have been possible. When Christianity is tied to governments, the biblical challenge to the world always suffers.
During this period, the hierarchy of the church solidified and became a kingdom of this world. Emphasis shifted from following Jesus to preserving the structure and position of the church. The church drifted farther from its original passion and commission to save souls, and authority was seen coming from the decisions of the priesthood and bishops instead of from the Bible. For the first time we see the papacy as a widely accepted institution. Infant baptism by pouring and then sprinkling replaced the original immersion of committed adult believers in the first century.
Augustine became the most influential theologian of this time as he laid down doctrinal roots for the teachings of original sin, celibacy and the elevation of the church tradition to be equal with Scripture: “I should not believe the Gospel unless I were moved to do so by the authority of the Catholic Church.” He is often referred to as the “father of the (Catholic) church.”
By 600 A.D. all the essential ingredients were in place for almost a 1000 years of virtually unchallenged Catholicism. The “presbyters” (elders) of the New Testament (who were to be the husbands of one wife) had now been transformed into parish priests (who could never marry), the Lord’s Supper was now a sacrament that could only be a administered by the priests, the worship of Mary was well under way, and the Bishop of Rome as Pope was almost universally accepted. History, politics and tradition were the greatest influences and Scripture was mostly lost in the shuffle.
Period 3. 600-1500 A.D.—Catholicism in Full Bloom
Gregory the Great, the first pope of this period, was a man of high morals who stressed spiritual qualities and reacted negatively to the title of universal bishop, preferring to be called instead “the servant of servants.” However, his teachings often included the superstitions, and even pagan ideas, of the masses that were being meshed together with biblical ideas. Under his leadership, anti-Scriptural ideas such as penance and purgatory were further developed and strengthened.
After Gregory, the papacy began a moral descent, reaching bottom during the tenth and eleventh centuries. Popes of the latter periods were found to be guilty of all kinds of incredible excess and immorality, causing that papacy to lose credibility. Eventually there were reform movements that brought the popes back into greater influence, but various efforts from outside the hierarchy to call people back to the simplicity of the Bible were squelched. The Bible had to become the property of the educated clergy and was considered “too difficult” and “too holy” for the common masses. Eventually the reading of Scripture by anyone other than priests was officially condemned. Also during this time, hundreds of years and lives were spent in building massive cathedrals that were now viewed to be “God’s house,” straying from the liberating New Testament concept of all disciples, apart from buildings, being a temple of the Holy Spirit. The church in the minds of most became the hierarchy and the building.
During this period, after years of simmering problems, the final break between the Eastern (or Orthodox) Church and the Western (or Roman Catholic) Church took place, with both the patriarch and the pope excommunicating the other (ca. 1050 A.D.). Significant is the fact that neither group was making any real appeal to Scripture to back their dogmas.
Occupying much attention during at least 200 years of this period were the much talked about Crusades, in which soldiers fought in the name of Christ to take the Holy Land away from the Muslims. There was even a tragic Children’s Crusade that brought death to many children who left their homes in the year 1212 to go fight the unbelievers, believing God would bless those with purer hearts. This is a far cry from Jesus’ declaration, “my kingdom is not of this world.”
Monasticism and asceticism under the leadership of such men as Francis of Assisi became popular during this period. Whole movements of people mistakenly thought the only way to be truly holy was to seclude themselves from the world and to follow severe regimens of self-deprivation, contradicting Colossians 2:16-23:
Therefore do not let anyone judge you by what you eat or drink, or with regard to a religious festival, a New Moon celebration or a Sabbath day. These are a shadow of the things that were to come; the reality, however, is found in Christ. Do not let anyone who delights in false humility and the worship of angels disqualify you. Such a person also goes into great detail about what they have seen; they are puffed up with idle notions by their unspiritual mind. They have lost connection with the head, from whom the whole body, supported and held together by its ligaments and sinews, grows as God causes it to grow.
Since you died with Christ to the elemental spiritual forces of this world, why, as though you still belonged to the world, do you submit to its rules: ‘Do not handle! Do not taste! Do not touch!’? These rules, which have to do with things that are all destined to perish with use, are based on merely human commands and teachings. Such regulations indeed have an appearance of wisdom, with their self-imposed worship, their false humility and their harsh treatment of the body, but they lack any value in restraining sensual indulgence.
More and more men and women were taught that salvation was a matter of receiving the right sacraments, doing the right acts of penance, learning to use all the right symbols (e.g. the sign of the cross) and venerating the right objects (e.g. statues of Mary or relics from the past) – things noticeably absent in the Scriptures.
Period 4. 1500-1700—Rediscovering the Bible: The Protestant Reformation
On October 31, 1517, the Spirit of God through the Scriptures moved a 34-year-old German priest named Martin Luther to post 95 theses on the castle door at Wittenburg University, and what would be known as the Protestant Reformation was underway. Preceded by courageous but persecuted thinkers like John Wyclif (in England) and John Hus (in Bohemia) and inspired by studies in the books of Romans and Galatians from the New Testament, Luther decided he could no longer be silent in the face of a religious system that had replaced the commands of God with the traditions of men.
The center of his message was:
(1) Justification by faith (in opposition to the Catholic idea of justification by works).
(2) The belief that Scripture alone (and not the edicts of popes and councils) is the authoritative standard.
Luther challenged many crucial teachings that had become part of traditional Roman Catholicism during the Babylonian Captivity (including the sacraments, the priesthood and the papacy).
In 1521, after saying his conscience was held captive by the Word of God, he was expelled from the Catholic Church by Pope Leo X. Eventually new churches were set up without the office of bishop, the mass, the priesthood, the restrictions on marriage, and the statutes. In their places was an emphasis on teaching and preaching the Word of God.
The steps Luther took against an intimidating system must be appreciated. His was a major move away from an apostate church. Sadly, Luther’s reforms of the church did not lead to discipling relationships nor to reform of his own character. He himself wrote that he was often lacking in self-control, and he could be rude or even coarse in his dealings with people. What resulted from his reforms was not a full return to biblical practice but a denomination named for him contrary to the teachings of:
1 Corinthians 1:12-13: What I mean is this: one of you says, ‘I follow Paul’; another, ‘I follow Apollos’; another, ‘I follow Cephas ’; still another, ‘I follow Christ.’ Is Christ divided? Was Paul crucified for you? Were you baptised in the name of Paul?
Contemporary with Luther were other reformers such as Ulrich Zwingli, who led much of Switzerland in a revolt against Catholicism, and John Calvin, a brilliant young scholar from France. In 1536 Calvin published his Institutes of the Christian Religion, which became known as the landmark work of the Reformation. From Calvin came the “reformed tradition,” which later included the Dutch Reform Church, the Church of Scotland, Presbyterians and Baptists, all of whom unfortunately emphasized his five major doctrines, summarized with the TULIP acrostic.
They were: (1) total depravity of man, (2) unconditional forgiveness by God, (3) limited atonement (i.e. Jesus did not die for everyone), (4) irresistible grace (i.e. those elected to be saved cannot resist the grace of God) and (5) perseverance of the saints (more popularly presented as “once saved, always saved”).
Those of us in the “SoldOut Movement” may find our closest kinship with the Reformation in that group known as the Anabaptists (a name given by their opponents who despised the idea that they taught that you should be baptized again). Considered “radicals” and “fanatics” even by reformers like Luther and Calvin, this group sought a more thorough return to New Testament Christianity. Speaking plainly about discipleship, they rejected the idea of infant baptism, insisting that every person who follows Jesus must make his own decision to be baptized based on his own faith and conviction. They insisted on being the very kind of church described in the Bible and that church was not an institution that made alliances with the state but was a family of believers who were sent by God to be salt and light in a sick and dying world. In perhaps the greatest move toward a biblical church, disciples were expected to help one another actually obey all the teachings of Jesus. Protestantism, in their view, had not gone nearly far enough. As a result, these people were severely condemned by the likes of Luther, Calvin and Zwingli and terribly persecuted by the members of the mainstream Reformation as the reformers had been persecuted. Those caught “rebaptizing” were officially executed by drowning.
The Reformation in England was a very different sort of story from that on the continent. It was not biblical convictions but pure political expediency that led Henry VIII to renounce the authority of the pope and transform the Catholic Church in England into the Church of England. The king had wanted the pope to annul his marriage so that he would be free to marry the younger Anne Boleyn. When the pope refused, Henry declared the Church of England to be a separate organization and secured from it the permission to remarry. He was not really interested in changing any doctrines, and for half a century the Church of England (later known as the Anglican Church or Episcopal Church in America) would swing back and forth in the direction of Catholicism. There was never any real passion for biblical Christianity.
Catholicism obviously suffered losses during the Reformation period, but eventually mounted a counter-reformation and an internal reform movement of its own in an attempt to blunt the effect of the Protestants. Led by such men as Ignatius Loyola, they attempted to revive spiritual concerns and interest in converting the pagans. However, at the famous Council of Trent, they specifically rejected the Reformation doctrines, insisting that Luther’s idea of “Scripture alone” was false and reaffirming their belief in the authority of the pope and the bishops. Meanwhile, since Gutenburg’s invention of the printing press in 1455, the Bible had been translated into the common language of the people and spread among the common man, fueling the Reformation and leading to the modern day.
Period 5. 1700-Present—A House Divided: The Dominance of Denominationalism and Loss of Faith
Two major developments characterize that last 300 years of “modern Christianity.” The first is loss of faith. As the western world grew more educated, industrialized, mechanized and now digitalized, the cultures where Christianity was dominant became very impressed with what man could do. God was relegated to an irrelevant slice of life or moulded into any shape that would serve man. Science and progress puffed up human ego. God was now measured by man’s scientific method instead of men being measured by God’s Word and Spirit. The result was an incredible faith in scientific theory and unscrupulous doubt in the Bible. The major universities once founded on verbalized allegiance to God now scoffed at his very existence. Seminaries today still produce far more doubt than faith.
The second major development was “denominationalism.” Religious people had seen the number of groups that came out of the Reformation and gave up on the ideal of being one body in Christ as Jesus himself prayed for us to do in:
John 17:22-23: I have given them the glory that you gave me, that they may be one as we are one – I in them and you in me – so that they may be brought to complete unity. Then the world will know that you sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me.
They decided to think of each group as a part of the larger body of Christ even if the groups were dis-unified in conviction, thought and practice.
Most people recognized that this was not the ideal way for the church of Christ to function, but it was felt that it was a great improvement on the literal warfare that had characterized religious disagreements for many years. The result has been that, for 300 years or more, denominations have been an accepted part of the religious landscape, with split after split creating an incredible proliferation of groups all wearing different names, from the mainstream Baptist, Methodist and Presbyterian to the smaller splinters like the “Fire Baptized Holiness Church of God of the Americas.”
Early in the nineteenth century in the United States there were those who sought another path. Believing that denominationalism was against the spirit of unity found in the New Testament, leaders like Barton Stone and Thomas and Alexander Campbell (all from Presbyterian roots) and James O’Kelley (from the Methodist tradition), called for an effort to unite the sects. Their unity efforts eventually caused them to seek “a restoration of the New Testament church,” which led to a rediscovery of certain biblical doctrines such as adult immersion for the forgiveness of sins. This movement which eventually produced such groups known as the Disciples of Christ, the Christian Church, and the Churches of Christ was for over a century the fastest growing indigenous religious movement in the United States. However, power struggles, the Civil War and quarrelling over words led this unity movement into its own divisions and into either legalistic viewpoints or abandonment of the respiration idea. Later these churches would suffer from a consuming materialism and loss of evangelistic zeal and purpose and the growth became a decline. However, within this movement would be found the seeds of our own “SoldOut Movement.” From a small beginning in churches of Christ came a renewed vision to truly be a New Testament church with its central goal of carrying out The Great Commission of:
Matthew 28:19-20: Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptising them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.
Another very interesting development in the United States was the Student Volunteer Movement for Foreign Missions conceived by Dwight L. Moody at Northfield, Massachusetts, in 1886. This movement rapidly spread throughout the campuses with a call for students to commit their lives to “the evangelization of this world in this generation.” Campus ministries were started at prestigious schools that were founded as religious institutions but had become hostile to Christianity. After World War I, the Student Volunteer Movement declined, but it is estimated that it moved 20,000 students to become missionaries. This was the forerunner of InterVarsity Christian Fellowship, Campus Crusade for Christ and the Navigators who emerged in the 1940’s and ‘50s.
Period 6. The Restoration of New Testament Discipleship in Our Day
The ‘60s and ‘70s were troubled times in the United States. The dreamers of the country, John and Bobby Kennedy and Martin Luther King, were assassinated. The sexual revolution, Vietnam and Watergate ate away the fabric of moral conviction and self-respect in American society. Meanwhile, God was raising up people who knew Jesus was the only real way to live. Disheartened with empty secular materialism, bankrupt religious ritual, tradition and prejudice, many of the Churches of Christ searched the Scriptures for a renewed vision of what Jesus’ church should be. Suddenly the ‘70s blossomed with soul winning workshops, schools of preaching, and bus ministries. This period also saw unrest on the U.S. campuses give birth to dynamic campus ministries. Their emphasis on Jesus and the Bible captured the imagination of disillusioned youth across the nation. However, when put to the test of criticism, purity, humility and conviction, these various efforts failed Jesus’ call for unity and commitment.
The challenge of church history from the first century until now for the modern disciple is: To always remain true to Christ, the Bible and his purpose.
Your goal should not be to look for a church that is right, but to look at what is right in the Bible, to see how God wants his church and then see who is following God’s word and commit yourself to a group of people that unashamedly follow God despite the consequences and persecuting.
We will finish where we started, in looking at the first church to see what they believed and how they lived and then follow their example.
Acts 2:36-41: ‘Therefore let all Israel be assured of this: God has made this Jesus, whom you crucified, both Lord and Messiah.’
When the people heard this, they were cut to the heart and said to Peter and the other apostles, ‘Brothers, what shall we do?’
Peter replied, ‘Repent and be baptised, every one of you, in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins. And you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. The promise is for you and your children and for all who are far off – for all whom the Lord our God will call.’
With many other words he warned them; and he pleaded with them, ‘Save yourselves from this corrupt generation.’ Those who accepted his message were baptised, and about three thousand were added to their number that day.
They believed that Jesus died for our sins, that our sins put him on the cross, and that we are responsible for his death, individually. To be saved we must have our sins forgiven and in order for our sins to be forgiven we must repent and be baptized, then and only then will we receive the Holy Spirit
Acts 2:42-47: They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer. Everyone was filled with awe at the many wonders and signs performed by the apostles. All the believers were together and had everything in common. They sold property and possessions to give to anyone who had need. Every day they continued to meet together in the temple courts. They broke bread in their homes and ate together with glad and sincere hearts, praising God and enjoying the favour of all the people. And the Lord added to their number daily those who were being saved.
They were devoted to:
1. The Apostles teachings – the Bible
2. Breaking of Bread – taking communion (done with each other, no solo
Christians not meeting with others)
3. They were always all together, they had everything in common, their
selfish lives and individualistic ideas and dream were given up for the greater cause of saving the world!
4. They sold their possessions and gave them away – their life was not
about how much they had but about how much others did not have.
5. They met in each other’s homes, Bible discussions
6. They were happy
7. Praised God
8. And God added to them, they kept growing.
Is that like the churches we see today?
Why do we call our church the “SoldOut Movement of God”?
Because that is what we are. We want everyone everywhere to know there is a God. His people are alive and well willing to go anywhere do anything and give up everything!