21 April 2006
What Happened to the Church After the Death of the Apostles?
Dear Mr. Waddey:
"What Happened to the First Century Church according to its history in the Bible?"
Jesus warned his disciples to beware of false prophets who would come to them in sheep's clothing (Mathew 24:24). Paul predicted that before Christ would return there would be a "falling away" in which the man of sin would be revealed, "the son of perdition, he that opposeth and exalteth himself against all that is called God or that is worshipped; so that he sitteth in the temple of God, setting himself forth as God..." for the mystery of lawlessness doth already work..." (II Thessalonians 2:2-7). The same apostle wrote to Timothy, "But the Spirit saith expressly, that in later times some shall fall away from the faith, giving heed to seducing spirits and doctrines of demons, through the hypocrisy of men that speak lies, branded in their own conscience as with a hot iron; forbidding to marry, and commanding to abstain from meats..."(I Timothy 4: 1-3). Many other passages state similar warnings of a coming apostasy.
Those departures from original Christianity blossomed in the second century and grew in number and seriousness with each passing generation. The most significant of the early departures occurred when the Roman General Constantine embraced Christianity in his struggle for victory in a civil war with Gen. Maxentius, leader of the old pagan element of Rome. This occurred in 312 A.D. Achieving his victory, Constantine, now the emperor, through a series of edicts gradually turned Christianity into the state religion of the empire. He and his successors used the church for their political ends. By heaping favors on Christian leaders and outlawing idolatry, Constantine created a situation where multitudes of unconverted heathen flooded into the church for the political advantages it offered. He used the power of the government to persecute and coerce pagans and those whom the church leaders deemed heretics, to conform to the majority thinking of the religious/political leaders. This was a major turning point for it united church and state and turned the persecuted church into a persecuting body. It transformed the nature of Christianity from that of pilgrims and strangers in a hostile world to that of politically powerful rulers in the world.
When the western part of the Roman Empire fell to invading Barbarians in 476 A.D. the old secular political power collapsed. The only surviving institution able to provide political and civic leadership was the Roman church. In 607, Boniface III, the bishop of Rome, was able to declare that he was the universal bishop or pope of all the churches and the emperor backed his claim From that date on the church that had its greatest political strength in Rome began to dominate all of western Europe. Anyone who dissented or protested against the abuses that grew out of this unchristian situation was persecuted severely, even unto death. The period of time from 476 to the beginning of the Protestant Reformation and the Renaissance in the 1500s has been called the Dark Ages, not because of the power of the Barbarian pagans, but because all of Europe and England fell under the mind-numbing power of that corrupt church that we now know as the Roman Catholic Church.
You ask what happened to the faithful church during this period? The true church never ceased to exist, but it was driving underground during those long centuries of persecution. Jesus told his disciples that when the corruptions of the Jewish nation would bring the Romans against them, they were to flee the city and take refuge in the mountains (Mathew 24: 15-23). They did and survived at Pella when Jewish state was destroyed. Although the church in Sardis had generally gone astray, there were a few who had not soiled their garments.... They were the faithful few (Revelation 3:1-5). The church is poetically described as a holy and virtuous mother in Revelation chapter 12. When persecuted, she fled to the wilderness and there was succored and protected for 1260 years (Revelation 12:6, 13-15). Throughout the Bible the writers taught that God's faithful people were only a remnant of the whole. Paul wrote, "If the number of the children of Israel be as the sand of the sea, it is the remnant that shall be saved" (Romans 9:27). When faithful Christian could no longer assemble and worship publicly they were forced to meet in their homes or in safe sanctuaries such as caves, catacombs and mountain retreats. Their writings were not legal to be published and those that were quickly were suppressed. Several million Bible Christians were persecuted to death during those long dreary years of persecution. The historical record, which was controlled by spokesmen for Rome, pictured them as heretics and dangerous sorts, when the opposite was actually true. Even today in China, true Christians are forced to meet quietly in house churches as they were during Communist Europe in days past.
With the outbreak of the Protestant Reformation, great men like John Huss, Martin Luther, Huldrich Zwingle, John Calvin and John Knox led the battle to break Rome's stranglehold of power over the Western World. Most importantly of all they were able to wrest the Bible from the power and control of the Roman priesthood. They translated it into the language of the common man and thus gave him the truth that could make him free (John 8:32). They also broke the political power Rome held over Europe and England making it possible for freedom of religion to blossom once again.
Jesus said the seed of the kingdom of the word of God (Luke 8:11). So long as the Word of God is available to be taught, read and believed, the potential for the kingdom or church of Christ to spring up and flourish is there. So during those long years of persecution when the true people of God were driven underground and even near to extinction, the living seed of God's Word was always capable of once again producing faithful servants of Christ.
At the time of the Protestant Reformation there was a parallel group that historians have labeled Anabaptists, which means rebaptizers. Those disciples felt that Luther and Calvin did not go far enough in their attempts to reform the Catholic Church. The Anabaptists wanted to go all the way back to the Bible and "restore original Christianity." They were hated and fiercely persecuted by Catholics, Lutherans and Calvinists alike. They too had to flee and meet secretly until a day of greater freedom of religion arrived.
Here in America at the opening of the 19th century a movement arose among several different denominations to reject denominationalism and return to the Bible and restore the church found therein. This movement has flourished and now numbers well over a million disciples here in America and even more than that overseas. Churches of Christ continue that quest to restore the faith and practice of primitive Christianity in this modern age. We believe that "the Bible only will produce Christians only." Hopefully you will want to join us in this endeavor. This answer has of necessity been long, but I hope it has answered your question.
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