PATTERNS IN CHURCH HISTORY
According to the teaching and judgment of the Son of God was the American Revolution a cause for which His elect might struggle? What about the labor union movement? The Russian Revolution of 1917? The Protestant Reformation? How we evaluate an historical event or movement depends upon the standard of judgment we use and upon the things we assume regarding the nature of history. For example, a person who assumes that the apostolically-founded patterns of Church life were intended to be God's norm for all ages cannot help but look at developments in Church history quite differently from one who believes that the Scriptures represent only the first stage in an ever-growing and expanding revelation. Similarly, one who assumes that papal infallibility is a good thing will, of course, look at the developments leading up to its proclamation in 1870 quite differently from someone who sees no monarchical principle of any kind permitted in the Scriptures. Yet again, someone who discounts the possibility of significant satanic creativity in Christianity's development, because of an assumed immunity granted by God, will of course look at the developments of Christian history quite differently from one who allows for the influence of all three historical protagonists that we have described in the fourth chapter. The former will not be able to see the development of a certain Christian structure or doctrine as being raised up by the devil because he only believes divine or human creativity are at work in the church.
The standard adopted in this chapter is the standard of apostolic approval: it assumes that the Scriptures outline or infer an original constitution that is as superior to any possible later developments of church life as the original constitution of the earth was superior to all its subsequent developments. Furthermore, it presumes the ecclesiastical creativity of man, Satan and God in the way outlined in Chapter Four for history in general: that while fallen man and Satan are able to pervert anything over which they gain dominion, God nevertheless responds in a way that insures the continuance of His original designs. This means that church history takes on some of the characteristics of a two thousand year long chess match or military engagement: God building (through Spirit-anointed men); Satan infiltrating and subverting (through satanically deceived men); God reacting in a way that furthers His designs (without destroying Satan's works, until the very end); Satan continually working in a way that causes those under his influence to have a role in the revealing of his antichrist; God continually working in a way that causes Christians under His influence to have a role in the revealing of the Christ.
Step one in the historical development
The liberating and power-releasing gospel of the kingdom of God was released into a spiritually dark and evil-filled world. Similarly, the apostolically-founded church societies were introduced into societies that functioned upon radically different and opposing principles -- the former created to express the life style of heaven, the latter expressing the ambitions of men and Satan. People from those worldly societies who responded to the gospel brought into the church not only their good will but also some "wisdoms" and presuppositions from their former life. That, however, was to be expected: a church is supposed to have babes in Christ, being guided by those who are spiritual (Galatians 6:1). But Satan unleashed vicious persecutions against the church, bringing death to very many of the anointed leaders, and disrupting the continuity whereby apostolic depth would be passed down to later generations. In addition, Satan inspired some to infiltrate the church communities in order to create their own power structures, by misleading the babes in Christ. This latter method would of course be much more successful during times of peace, since most falsely motivated "Christians" are not normally going to be drawn into a fellowship that may well cost them their lives. Despite Satan's attacks and infiltration, however, the early period of Christian existence is full of examples of congregations of believers moving in love for God and for each other. Listen to the moving words of the bishop from North Africa, Cyprian, written around the middle of the third century:
This seems a cheerful world, Donatus, when I view it from this fair garden under the shadows of these vines. But if I climbed some great mountain and looked out over the wide lands, you know very well what I would see. Brigands on the high roads, pirates on the seas, in the amphitheaters men murdered to please applauding crowds, under all roofs misery and selfishness. It is really a bad world, Donatus, an incredibly bad world. Yet in the midst of it I have found a quiet and holy people. They have discovered a joy which is a thousand times better than any pleasure of this sinful life. They are despised and persecuted, but they care not. They have overcome the world. These people, Donatus, are the Christians -- and I am one of them.
One of the first things to be attacked by Satan was the knowledge of that sequence by which an individual passes from death to life. In the words of an eminent church historian, "The Pauline doctrine of faith and of justification by grace alone steadily retreated, or rather, it was never yet rightly enthroned in the general thought and life of the church." This does not mean that at every period in the church's history, no matter how dark, there have not been individuals actually passing from death to life through faith in Jesus; but it means that the more widespread the ignorance, the less common was the true proclamation of the gospel, and the greater the proportion of misguided and false brethren.
In this early, more faithful and consecrated period of the first three centuries, the perennial danger for the central body of believers was to develop exaggerated regard for the place of martyrdom, personal asceticism and strict church discipline. The doctrine of justification by faith in Christ, which gives to good works the status of necessary fruits was becoming gradually obscured, so that these heroic deeds and disciplines were taking on the status of things that earn a response from God. Good works and orthodoxy of beliefs slowly tended to become conceived as causes of divine approval rather than (1) as grateful responses to a prior approval granted to faith, and (2) as fruits of a personally-experienced Spirit to Whom credit would then naturally be given. This is the danger of legalism, into which disciplined Christians have always been in danger of falling (e.g., the situation in the Galatian church and in 1 Corinthians 13:3).
A less widespread, but nevertheless equally real danger during this relatively heroic period was the danger of libertinism (e.g., the tendency in Corinth, and in several of the churches in Revelation 2-3). False believers encouraged the naive to "sin more that grace may abound all the more" (e.g., Romans 6:1, 15).
If a larger number of Christians were tending to succumb to an overly severe picture of God, these members were living in the illusion of a permissive God. This libertine illusion seems to increase as the tension between the church and the world is weakened. However, both the libertine and legalistic movements, if unchecked, take us away from the message of the cross of Christ, whereby God expresses both that He is the originator of the grace in which we stand (against all legalism), and that He does indeed hate sin exceedingly (against all libertinism).
With the gradual decline in the knowledge and preaching of the message of justifying faith came the gradual decline of the experience of justifying faith. And with the obscuring of right relationship with the Son came, in consequence, the diminishing of that "full anointing" of the Spirit that Clement of Rome had said was known to the Corinthians in their apostolic days. This decline in the experience of the Spirit and in the manifestation of the gifts of the Spirit was noticed by some in the early church; later on it was even justified (by Augustine, for example), as indeed it still is today by many. Slowly but steadily, Trinitarian orthodoxy came to be a substitute for Trinitarian encounter and Trinitarian relationship.
Matching the decline in the Spirit's anointing and guidance, there was an increasing reliance upon the church's organs of governmental authority to provide unity. I believe that this development was not simply a necessary reaction due to the increase of heretical activity in the church, as is often taught. There was an early trend, noticeable from the time of the letters of Ignatius of Antioch (c. 112 A.D.) to gather all the reins of a congregation's governing authority into the hands of one of the elders, and to reserve for him the use of a title that had originally belonged to all elders, namely the title "overseer" or "bishop." This act was clearly an adoption of the principle of authority that comes most natural to carnal man: unity consists of making one person the boss. When that happens, unity then consists of everyone obeying the same individual human will, instead of coming to a common mind under the guidance of the Holy Spirit. Jesus and the apostles had warned against this kind of development (Mark 10:42f, 3 John 9f), but the churches stumbled into the trap, beginning in Asia Minor apparently (where Ignatius' letters originated).
There is a direct line of development from this point on: from the apostolic establishment of strong ruling authority to be exercised in the congregation by a team of elders acting out of a common mind; to the gradual concentration of the elders' ruling authority into one man's hands, making him an independent congregational bishop (second century); to one man assuming the rule over all the congregations within a geographical area, yet being quite independent of higher external control (second and third centuries); to one bishop in the important cities becoming the leader of the synod of bishops that governed all bishops in a given province (fourth century); to the governing of all of Christendom by an "ecumenical council" of bishops called by the "Christian" emperor (starting with the Council of Nicea, 325 A.D.), and finally to the logical conclusion of all this development -- the creation of an emperor-bishop within this ecclesiastical system who would claim as much authority over churches as any emperor ever possessed in the Empire: the Roman papacy. The despotic spirit that destroyed the old Roman Republic and turned it into a tyrannical empire had begun to infiltrate the Christian communities from the second century and, taking advantage of ignorance and careless observance of Jesus' teaching, did the same thing within Christendom.
Consistent with the development of old covenant legalism in theology was an increasing use of the old covenant terms and institutions to define the Christian offices and institutions, especially during the third century. During that period, we see the development of old covenant "priests" in their vestments, gathering around "altars" within increasingly elaborate church temples to offer a "sacrifice" (first of bread and wine, later of the body and blood of Christ). It is not at all accurate to say that the sacraments were given their importance during this period, for they were given great importance by Jesus and the apostles themselves; but it is accurate to say that the sacraments were by and large transformed from community celebrations (under the leadership of elders) to rituals performed by individuals that the community observed. New Testament sacramentalism was misused and made to serve the alien principles of worldly authority, the fall into old covenant priestcraft and -- worst of all -- the offering of the sacraments' promises to those who were neither regenerate nor disciples of Christ.
It must be emphasized again and again, however, that the life of the kingdom of God in the church was not simply obliterated in "one fell swoop." As long as tension, separation and competition with the pagan world continued, all of these enervating developments were within a Christendom that by and large would put modern Catholic, Protestant, Orthodox or charismatic Christendom to shame for brotherly love, piety, otherworldliness, seriousness of purpose and purity of heart.
As cunning an infiltrator and deceiver as Satan was showing himself to be in all of these developments, his master stroke had not yet been unveiled. For what he could not destroy by outright assault in the imperial persecutions he seduced into prostitution by imperial alliance. Christians originally thought it inconceivable that this world system could be reformed and "conquered for Christ." Origen (early third century) was evidently one of the pioneers of that false hope. Most likely, as the numbers of Christians grew, and as more and more public officials entered the churches' ranks, the possibilities of a "Christian state" were entertained: and in entertaining this notion one of the most important teachings of Jesus was obscured -- the teaching of the unalterably evil nature of this world and its god. When Constantine began his rise to power, his relative honesty and his partiality toward Christianity made him appear as a modern Moses to many Christians (for example, to the famous ecclesiastical historian, Eusebius), a God-sent liberator who would deliver the church from oppression and lead her into the security of a promised land. At the moment of their strongest testing Christians lowered their guard instead of raising it higher.
Satan had also been at work prior to this time in the theological realm, seducing Christians away from the apostolic teaching regarding the return of Christ. Most Christians of the first several centuries, as seen in chapter eight, were what is now called "millennial," having been taught to be so by the apostles: they really believed that Christ would return to a planet that was going to remain rebellious right up until that return. Upon His return, He and His saints would rule over the world for one thousand years, and then would begin the glory of the new and heavenly Jerusalem on the earth. Satan began to inspire Christians to abandon this anti-worldly teaching (again, Origen was the most famous of them), so that it became increasingly popular to allegorize away the details given in the prophecy of John. By the time of Constantine's appearance on the scene, many or most church members were prepared to trade the supernatural millennium for a Constantinian one.
It was the acceptance of alliance with this world and its emperor that served to "open the fountains of the great deep," as it were, and allow the citizens of the world to literally pour into the churches. By accepting the world's alliance the Christians also unwittingly bound themselves to the world's methods (institutionalized greed and violence) and to the world's god. Thus the idea of a cultural "Christendom" was born, in which all who expected to accomplish anything in this world would have to be "sons of the church" in good standing. And what now constituted good standing?: Trinitarian orthodoxy and submissiveness to ecclesiastical decisions and rituals, among other things. The personal possession of justifying faith was neither necessary nor inquired after; in time it even became a surprise.
Remember though, that all this decline occurred in stages. Many earnest Christian leaders in this Constantinian period had no personal intention to surrender the church to the use of the god of this world. Perhaps they forced themselves to think in terms of the access they would have to all those multitudes in the pews they could preach to now: and there were indeed zealous preachers among them -- Athanasius, Chrysostom, Basil, Augustine and Ambrose, among others. Most Christian leaders no more intended to do damage to the household of God than a man who carelessly carries a container of nitroglycerine in his pocket would intend to blow up his own family: but by abandoning Christ's clear teaching and warning about this world and its god in order to accept a "Christian empire," and by abandoning His teaching about the necessity of faith and surrender prior to baptism, they made inevitable the destruction of kingdom of God life in the churches.
The damage caused by this alliance still has not been undone. The perpetual radical separation between God's kingdom (to be expressed in the intimate fellowship of the church) and Satan's kingdom (dominant in every society) is still largely unknown and untaught. This is quite true even in the American Christianity that talks so proudly about the separation of church and State: it still commonly teaches the myth that America was a Christian nation to begin with, some kind of an Israel that had a special covenant with God. While those who believe in establishment Christianity claim their government as being "Christian," American Christians tend to claim their culture and history as being of God. But, according to God's Word, America was never anything other to Him than another form of "the world." This confusion all stems from the Constantinian covenant with death, when the church elected not to see the satanic nature of the trap because of the lovely bait being offered: release from persecution and a chance to trade places with the pagans in social position.
The protests against the new institutionalized worldliness in the churches were largely ineffectual, since the protesters by this time had, by and large, neither a true gospel nor a Spirit-anointing to offer as a substitute. Monastic withdrawal offered geographical isolation from the cruder forms of worldliness and unbelief but, even at their best, the monasteries teemed with poor teaching regarding justifying faith and the Spirit's anointing, and tended to pursue sanctity through the practice of austerities and prayer-works instead. Even such obviously beautiful souls as Francis of Assisi and the Russian Seraphim of Serov, who certainly possessed deep justifying faith in Christ, could not see how devastated and distorted the original apostolic Christianity had become through Satanic deception.
The self-exaltation of the church, east and west, was not only idolatrous but absurd. During this period -- a period which has continued into the present for many in these Catholic-type traditions -- a Christianity that no longer even knew the fundamentals of the way of salvation was claiming exalted things for itself that even apostolic churches never thought about claiming. And these kinds of traditions (especially the papal) tended to lock themselves into this megalomania by further asserting that reformation was unthinkable (since it would require the admission of error). Only a century and a half ago Pope Gregory XVI stated:
As it is invariable, to use the words of the Fathers of Trent, that the Church "has been instructed by Jesus Christ and his apostles and that it is informed by the Holy Spirit which constantly instills every truth," it is completely absurd and eminently insulting for anyone to hold that a "restoration" or "regeneration" is necessary to preserve and increase the Church; as if it could be judged open to failure or to ignorance or to other drawbacks of this nature."
One of the signs of self-exaltation was the gradual loss of the humble awareness that the church only has its mandate and its authority if the tradition it is handing down is apostolic tradition. The earlier concept of "unwritten apostolic traditions," which had been limited in the second century to such things as making the sign of the cross or triple immersion at baptism, gradually became a "carte blanche" to justify the existence of any teaching or practice of long standing that could not be justified on the basis of the Scriptures. "Tradition" gradually became a source of revelation that paralleled the Scriptural source, relieving the church of the need to root her decisions in solid Scriptural exegesis, and enabling her to fend off arguments calling for thorough cleansing and restoration.
And so we come to the end of Satan's first long round of activity in Christian church history, extending over a millennia and a half. We began with apostolically planted communities, governed by teams of pastors, that proclaimed the grace of God and brought the anointing of the Spirit; for all the problems caused by babes (e.g., Corinth and Galatia) and by satanic infiltration (e.g., Revelation 2-3), the Spirit's anointing was strong, the separation from the world was maintained, the sense of brotherhood was highly developed, and the churches remained relatively faithful to apostolic institutions. We come to the end of this theological and structural evolution, and find that the identity, privileges and responsibilities of "the church" had been removed from the original context of the local brotherhood (a visible community that was composed of committed disciples), and now usurped by vast, trans-congregational power systems. There were two such competing systems (the imperial Roman and the patriarchal Orthodox), but they were quite alike in their bold but empty claims concerning their right to stand between God and man. In all of this, Satan showed himself to be an incredibly competent enemy: patient, cunning, knowing where and when to attack, possessing intimate knowledge of his human victims. He seems to have accomplished almost as thorough a capturing of the society of Christians as he had accomplished in first bringing the human race under his sway. But God, who had permitted all of these developments, began finally to set in motion His own response: that kind of response that allows man and Satan to stay creative in their rebellion, but which continues His original designs to bring the true gospel and Church to every land, in preparation for the revealing of His Christ at the end of the age (Matthew 24:14).
Step two in the historical development
For the past 500 years God has been at work restoring the divine truths regarding His gospel and His Church. As we have stated, He has been at work in a way that allows Satan and man to continue their creativity and to resist His movements.
In the fifteenth century He began to awaken many Christians in the west to the need to restore Christendom to its Biblical foundation. The fall of Constantinople to the Turks in 1453 brought many Greeks and Greek documents into the west, helping to stimulate a revival in the deeper studies of God's Word. Christian movements of restoration and protest began at that period, or earlier (e.g., those of Waldo, Wycliffe, Hus and Bohemian Brethren).
The first generation of Protestant reformers were the men through whom God taught some vitally important truths. The proclamation of the Bible's authority over the Church ("sola scriptura") was begun. The truth that a man is saved only by personal possession of faith in Christ began to be proclaimed. The understanding of the degeneration that occurred in the Church's history was made clear. There was a casting off of the yoke of the illegitimate ecclesiastical papal emperor. Only the Anabaptists, however, rejected the Constantinian alliance; and they alone taught that only committed disciples of Jesus had the right to the baptismal promises and fellowship of the Christian congregation. They were unique in these things, and they were also violently persecuted by Catholic and Protestant alike.
Because of unbiblical compromises accepted by their first generation of reformers, the Anglican, Lutheran and Reformed denominations that had been brought into being by those first reformers soon settled into a form of the same establishment paralysis that the Constantinian Christians had experienced. "Main Line" Christianity, whether Catholic or Protestant, has never been very successful at freeing God's Word from the prison of lukewarmness and compromise in which they have bound it.
None of the churches, however, whether Protestant, Catholic or Orthodox were ready, willing or able to be governed consistently by the natural and literal reading of the New Testament that we have been urging in this catechism. If they had been, the Anabaptists, Calvinists and Roman Catholics would, for example, have seen the beautiful truth of Luther regarding the Lord's Supper and baptism. And the same Scriptural integrity would have led them to see the truth in the Anabaptist insight that the water and the wine belong only to those who have crossed over the chasm that divides Christ's disciples from the unregenerate. Similarly, they would all have recognized the voice of Christ in the Anabaptist's insistence that the Sermon on the Mount (and related apostolic writings) were intended by Christ to be obeyed carefully. And Anabaptist, Anglican, Lutheran and Reformed alike would have honored the vowed celibacy that Catholic and Orthodox have preserved for us (after reestablishing it upon New Testament principles). And so it would have continued, issue after scriptural issue.
Through the Christians who had found freedom from the spirit of worldliness, God began to restore clarity regarding the role of preaching and regarding the experienced presence and activity of the Holy Spirit. Preachers of holiness began to arise, continuing down to modern times: Whitfield, Wesley, Finney, Moody, A.B. Simpson, and many others. These men have been the forerunners of the modern charismatic movement that has been used by God to restore clarity about the baptism and gifts of the Spirit.
God has used restoration-oriented movements to inspire those who have ears to hear, to search the Scriptures for patterns by which the churches are to be structured, disciplined and taught. They have shown us that the Scriptures reveal, either directly or by inference, a complete pattern of apostolic truth and order for congregational life.
During the last hundred years, Biblical and historical scholarship has matured to the point that we can say with confidence that we can know more now about the teaching and organization of the apostolic churches than Cyprian did in 250 A.D. This knowledge explosion has made possible a more intelligent and informed exegesis of the Scriptures than has been seen before; it has also enabled us to gain a more accurate overview of the historical evolution we have been sketching above.
In our present age we have entered into an appreciation of human relationships and patterns for personal growth that have made possible the restoration of those aspects of apostolic Christianity. Attending this has been the deepened understanding about how sorely individuals need intimate community bonds, and the growth of Christian communities in unprecedented profusion (though Anabaptists had pioneered here also 400 years ago). This development makes possible the restoration of the local church as a true society and community.
We also see in our day a mentality of openness to other Christian traditions that enables biases to be overcome and enables Christians to be able to accept truths from one another. Scriptural truths that have been enshrined (or locked) within various Protestant and Catholic-type traditions have the possibility of now being brought together again for the first time since the Reformation.
Satan has, of course, not been idle during all of this. He has worked just as hard and as cunningly as he did during the first period. Even if he cannot get us to deny the truths handed down to us, he can still work quite successfully to keep us from accepting other people's equally important truths: as he did in keeping Anglicans, Lutherans, Calvinists and Anabaptists from being able to work together. He has worked to keep groups yearning to be wedded to the state or to their culture. He has worked to make the Bible subservient to the Church in a new way: by raising up the myth of evolution to be received as if it were scientific fact and thus destroying confidence in the Scriptural witness, which in turn allows those deceived churches freedom from Biblical restraints. As he used to work to turn Biblical ruling authority into monarchical rule he has, through the introduction of democratic theory into the churches, now been working to eliminate ruling authority altogether in most denominations. As he used to work to keep Christian traditions from fertilizing one another through the raising up of unneeded barriers, so now he is at work inspiring a form of ecumenism that glosses over problems rather than solving them. He is also at work in the modern charismatic movement, getting people to mistake excited flesh for empowerment of Spirit. Our skillful enemy is very much at work; and he will not be stopped from deceiving until after he has successfully accomplished his ultimate deception.
Yet in the midst of all this deception God continues to work, restoring His version of Christianity. And he will not cease until He has restored His Church to her apostolic inheritance, that she may faithfully witness the return of His Son in judgment and glory. I suggest to you, dear pilgrim, that God is indeed preparing a pure bride through the restoration of the apostolic gospel and Church; but it is a bride who will not rule over the world of His return without first glorifying God in persecutions every bit as fierce as that which our early brethren endured. Let only those enter Christ's Church who are willing to be prepared by Him to share His cross before entering into His rest and glory. The current of history is moving at an ever-quickening pace toward its fierce, yet exciting climax. The time has come for comfort-loving Christianity to be abandoned willingly, pilgrim, lest you have to endure its agony: for comfort is fleeing from the earth. The climax of history is drawing near: prepare yourself now!
That is, of course, from my perspective of the Biblical perspective. <back>
For example, the formal alliance between church and state that occurred after Constantine could, by that person, only be interpreted as either a divine development or a (necessary or unfortunate) human development; he would not be able to evaluate that alliance as a victory for Satan, one that was intrinsically evil because of the evil nature of its architect. <back>
"A letter of Cyprian to Donatus," Moments with the Devotional Masters, Frederick Ward Kates, ed. (Nashville: The Upper Room, 1961), p. 10. <back>
Philip Schaff, History of the Christian Church, Vol. II (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1910), p. 388. <back>
For example, in the description of the martyrdom of the famous Polycarp and his companions (c. 150 A.D.), we read that, "looking to the grace of Christ, they despised all the torments of this world, redeeming themselves from eternal punishment by (the suffering of) a single hour." ("Encyclical Epistle of the Church at Smyrna," ch. ii. Ante-Nicene Fathers, Vol. I, p. 39). It may well be that the author did not mean that they were earning their salvation by their suffering, but he was using very dangerous language. <back>
"The First Epistle of Clement to the Corinthians," Ch.11, The Ante-Nicene Fathers, Vol.1, p. 5. <back>
Greek: "episkopos" <back>
Whether in the Book of Revelation (e.g., 9-13) or in the gospels (e.g., John 16:33), Jesus taught that the world will never be anything other than a source of tribulation, temptation or mission for His church. <back>
Schaff, p. 122. <back>
Quoted by Donald F. Durnbaugh, The Believers' Church (New York: The Macmillan Company, 1968), p. 217. <back>
See, for example, the way Tertullian defended the triple immersion at baptism, the drinking of milk and honey after baptism and making the sign of the cross: "De Corona," chap. III, The Ante-Nicene Fathers, Vol. III. <back>
However, the reformers were quite divided about what form of authority was to take the papacy's place. <back>
I am referring to his theology about what is offered in Baptism and the Eucharist, rather than its offer to the unregenerate. <back>