Whatever happened to that early church — the one that Jesus founded and Paul helped promulgate throughout the known world of the first century? It changed. Slowly and surely, it changed.
Warnings of Departure from the Faith
Yes, they warned us. Both Peter and Paul said it would happen. And it did.
Paul in his first letter to Timothy: “Now the Spirit expressly says that in latter times some will depart from the faith, giving heed to deceiving spirits and doctrines of demons, speaking lies in hypocrisy, having their own conscience seared with a hot iron, forbidding to marry, and commanding to abstain from foods which God created to be received with thanksgiving by those who believe and know the truth.” (1 Timothy 4:1-3 NKJV)
And in his second letter to Timothy, Paul repeats his dire warning: “Preach the Word; be prepared in season and out of season; correct, rebuke and encourage-with great patience and careful instruction. For the time will come when men will not put up with sound doctrine. Instead, to suit their own desires, they will gather around them a great number of teachers to say what their itching ears want to hear. They will turn their ears away from the truth and turn aside to myths.” (2 Timothy 4:2-4)
Again Paul, in his farewell address to the elders of the church at Ephesus: “I know that when I am gone, savage wolves will come in among you and will not spare the flock. Even from your own number men will arise who will distort the truth in order to get disciples to break away and follow them.” (Acts 20:29-30 REB)
The apostle Peter adds this warning: “. . . there will be false teachers among you. They will secretly introduce destructive heresies, even denying the sovereign Lord who bought them-bringing swift destruction on themselves. Many will follow their shameful ways and will bring the way of truth into disrepute.” (2 Peter 2:1-2)
Early Church Rumblings
During Paul’s lifetime, we find divisions in the Corinthian church. Paul pleaded with them: “I appeal to you, brothers, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that all of you agree with one another so that there may be no divisions among you and that you may be perfectly united in mind and thought. My brothers, some from Chloe’s household have informed me that there are quarrels among you. 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 baptized into the name of Paul?” (1 Corinthians 1:10-13)
In Revelation, the resurrected Jesus addressed another drifting church — the church at Ephesus: “You have forsaken your first love. Remember the height from which 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.” (Revelation 2:4-5) In Revelation 1:20, we discover that the lampstand meant the church itself.
Church Organization Departures
Elders and Bishops
History records the slow but steady movement of the church from its scriptural foundation. The first departures were in organization. In the first century church, no distinction was made among elders in rank and authority. That was not to last. During the second century, we find congregations selecting one elder to preside over the meetings as a permanent president. Along with the new position came a change in title. The presiding elder is called “bishop.” (The New Testament applies both words “elders” and “bishops” to the same men in the church.)
Bishops’ authority and power increased over time, up to the point where each was assigned a territory called a “diocese.” With that change, bishops controlled not only their own local churches, but a group of local churches within their geographic area. This was the beginning of the church hierarchy with “city bishops” in top positions, “country bishops” below them, and “elders” of local congregations below the bishops. So began the apostasy.
Temporary conventions were selected to settle disputes between congregations of the church. General Synods and permanent councils followed. These conventions eventually assumed legislative authority. “Metropolitans”, diocesan bishops from the larger cities, presided over the councils.
The ecclesiastical men who governed the five largest districts were called “patriarchs”, which means “chief fathers.” In 606 A.D. the Roman Emperor designated Boniface III, the Patriarch of Rome, as the “Universal Bishop of the Church.”
From a simple organizational plan of equal elders to a single elder presiding as bishop, to country and city bishops, to metropolitans, to patriarchs, to a single Universal Bishop presiding over all the church, we find the church evolving step by incremental step into the apostate church with an organization vastly different from the one Jesus established and Paul proclaimed.
The local elder position of the first century church eventually developed into bishops, country bishops, city bishops, metropolitans, patriarchs, and popes in the centralized apostate church. So what happened to the preacher position of the first century church? Remember Peter, Paul, Timothy, and Titus? In another departure from the New Testament pattern, preachers became priests in the apostate church.
Towards the end of the second century, a distinction grew between those who preached and the other members of the church. Clergy became a higher order than laity. In various ways and in varying degrees this idea is widespread among many religious groups today. Those in the clergy often dress differently, many call themselves “priest”, which is borrowed from Judaism, and wear titles such as father or reverend.
Of course, this distinction between “clergy” and “laity” is not authorized by the scriptures and it was not practiced in the first century church.
In stark contrast, Peter, and Paul showed great humility in carrying out their evangelistic missions. They never claimed to be different or exalted. Nor did they ask to be called father or reverend. Surely the Bible records their humility as examples for us to follow.
Moreover, Jesus explicitly warned us: “Do not call anyone on earth ‘father,’ for you have one Father, and he is in heaven.” (Matthew 23:9)
Church Doctrine Departures
Head of Church and Authority
Along with this centralization of power, with its hierarchy of archbishops, cardinals, and popes, came fundamental changes in church doctrine. Christ was no longer head of the apostate church. The Pope assumed that position. In the First Vatican Council in 1870, Pope Pius IX declared the doctrine of Papal Infallibility. That means when the Pope speaks ex-cathedra (from the chair) on matters of faith and morals, he speaks the law of the Lord.
Nor is the Bible the final word of authority. Church tradition approved by the Council usurps that authority.
From the very beginning of the church on the day of Pentecost, baptism was for repentant sinners who came to believe in Christ. (Acts 2:38) That practice continued through the first century. However, by the second century, baptism of infants had begun. Many at that time believed babies were born sinful. To prevent them from dying in sin, babies were baptized on the second day of their lives.
Still, no scriptural basis can be cited for the claim that babies are born in sin. And all the baptisms enumerated in the New Testament were of repentant believers.
Baptism is immersion; that’s the meaning of the word. And that was the practice in the early church. So it remained until exceptions began for the ill. “Clinic baptism” was the name given for sprinkling one physically unable to be immersed. Sprinkling for baptism was not fully approved until the Council of Ravena in 1311 A.D. It has never had the approval of Christ.
Other Doctrine Departures
Absolution from sins by earthly priesthood
Adoration and prayers to the Virgin Mary
Celibacy – Popes and priests are forbidden marriage. Paul predicted it: “The Spirit explicitly warns us that in the time to come some will forsake the faith and surrender their minds to subversive spirits and demon-inspired doctrines . . . . They will forbid marriage. . . .” (I Timothy 4:1-3)
Confessing sins to a priest for forgiveness
Doctrine of indulgences – whereby prayers, gifts, or self-sacrifice mediate sins
Doctrine of purgatory – whereby souls of those who have died in a state of sin are made fit for paradise by temporary banishment, suffering, or punishment.
Doctrine of transubstantiation – whereby the prayer of the pope or priest changes bread and wine into the flesh and blood of Jesus.
Extreme unction – sacramental rite of anointing those in danger of death
Holy water- water blessed and sanctified by the priest
Images and prayers to saints and martyrs
Penance – inflicting punishment in payment for sin as evidence of penitence
Church Worship Departures
The first General Council was called by Roman Emperor Constantine in 325 A.D. This council was said to represent the universal church. This council adapted a formal statement of faith which came to be called “The Nicene Creed.” What’s wrong with human creeds?
Mack Lyon, Gospel preacher of the television program In Search of the Lord’s Way, addressed that question: “Any human creed, if it contains more than the Bible, contains too much. If it contains less than the Bible, contains too little, and if it contains the same as the Bible, it is superfluous, useless and it is dispensable.”
Of course, reciting the Nicene Creed is not authorized by the scriptures and was not practiced by the first century church. Creeds, along with country and city bishops, metropolitans, patriarchs, popes, priests, councils, and church traditions, are departures from the church that Jesus founded and the apostles preached.
Singing without musical accompaniment was an intrinsic part of church service for the first five centuries. The Orthodox church never accepted instrumental music in their worship. Scriptures never mentioned nor authorized the use of musical instruments in the early church.
Never-the-less, the apostate church did introduce musical instruments into public worship in the sixth century A.D. By the eighth century, the practice was widely accepted in the church. It was another departure of the faith Paul warned us of in 1 Timothy 4:1.
Why Do It the Lord’s Way?
Okay, the apostate church departed from the first century church in: organization, doctrine, and worship practices. Church historians all agree that is the case. So what? Times change, circumstances change, why shouldn’t the church adapt with the times too?
The answer is: God doesn’t allow us that option. He orders us to do it his way — no more, no less. Check the scriptures out for yourself in your own Bible.
* “Do not add to what I command you and do not subtract from it, but keep the commands of the LORD your God that I give you.” (Deuteronomy 4:2)
* “So be careful to do what the LORD your God has commanded you; do not turn aside to the right or to the left.” (Deuteronomy 5:32)
* “Observe the commands of the LORD your God, walking in his ways and revering him.” (Deuteronomy 5:32)
* “See that you do all I command you; do not add to it or take away from it.” (Deuteronomy 12:32)
* “Why do you call me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ and do not do what I say?” (Luke 6:46)
The scriptures also provides us with examples of those who failed to worship as commanded. Sure, it sounds innocent enough, but substituting one fire for another was fatal for Aaron’s two sons. Leviticus tells their story:
“Aaron’s sons Nadab and Abihu took their censers, put fire in them and added incense; and they offered unauthorized fire before the LORD, contrary to his command. So fire came out from the presence of the LORD and consumed them, and they died before the LORD.” (Leviticus 10:1-2)
Then there is the story of King Saul. His army was deserting him in the face of their enemies. Furthermore, Samuel, the prophet, did not show up at the appointed time to make the sacrifice. Under duress, Saul did what he thought was right. He took it upon himself to make the burnt offering to the Lord. As Samuel pointed out, the king was not authorized to make this sacrifice. For that he lost his kingdom.
“What have you done?” asked Samuel.
Saul replied, “When I saw that the men were scattering, and that you did not come at the set time, and that the Philistines were assembling at Micmash, I thought, ‘Now the Philistines will come down against me at Gilgal, and I have not sought the LORD’s favor.’ So I felt compelled to offer the burnt offering.”
“You acted foolishly,” Samuel said. “You have not kept the command the LORD your God gave you; if you had, he would have established your kingdom over Israel for all time. But now your kingdom will not endure; the LORD has sought out a man after his own heart and appointed him leader of his people, because you have not kept the LORD’s command.” (1 Samuel 13:11-14)
Is there any doubt at all? We are to follow exactly what the scriptures say in organization, in doctrine, and in worship practices. The risk of doing it “our way” could have eternal consequences.
Questions to Consider:
1. What is the purpose of the church? to please God or man?
2. Should the church’s organization, doctrine, and worship practices conform to God’s will as expressed in the scriptures? or should it conform to church tradition or current popular opinion?
Quote of the Day: “The safest road to Hell is the gradual one — the gentle slope, soft underfoot, without sudden turnings, without milestones, without signposts.” Screwtape Letters C. S. [Clive Staples] Lewis (1898-1963) English author and Christian Apologist
Note: All Scripture References are taken from the New International Version unless otherwise stated.
NKJV – New King James Version
REB – Revised English Bible