I decided to take a break from the Solas to consider the latest issue that has come up for me – That of the Apostasy of the Early Church.
What happened to the Church of Jesus Christ? This was a major question motivating the Reformer’s zeal for change. But of course they didn’t believe they were actually changing the church…oh no, that would be dangerous and blasphemous. No, instead they believed their mission to be one of re-forming…the way a plastic surgeon would re-form a body broken through some terrible event. A RESTORATION OF THE CHURCH OF JESUS CHRIST- this is how those 16th century men understood their mission; to Restore the Lost Body of Jesus to its’ New Testament Roots.
Naturally the idea of Apostasy comes into play here. Unless we care very little for New Testament Biblical prophecy, we can’t escape the repeated warnings throughout the New Testament that a time of Apostasy would follow the establishment of the Christian Church. Paul, John, Peter and Jude all speak of the battle the Church would face in maintaining the Truth. In fact they even indicate that the corruption of truth had already begun and in some cases was the cause of their writing about it. The Bible definitely addresses a falling away from the True Church that would come as a result of adhering to strange doctrines and practices foreign to the doctrines and practices of the Early Church (built on the foundation of the Apostles and Prophets with Jesus as Its’ Corner Stone).
Now any good child of the reformation is supposed to believe that it is the Roman Catholic Church that represents this Apostasy. After all, the only defensible argument for changing the historical beliefs and practices of the church is that the church had fallen away from its’ position as the Body of Christ. This may seem strange to say today in lieu of the ecumenical spirit that prevails in this generation, but without this historical mandate the reformers would have had no leg to stand on.
So, did the early church apostatize? Is this what the Bible says would happen?
I’m beginning to think otherwise!
First of all, Jesus says that He will build His Church on the foundation of the Apostles and that the gates of Hell will not prevail against it. This would indicate that Jesus would be building One Church and that that One Church would never be overcome. In Ephesians 4:4-6 Paul confirms that there is in fact only One Church:
There is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called in one hope of your calling; one Lord, one faith, one baptism; one God and Father of all, who is above all, and through all, and in you all.
Later in the same Epistle Paul tells us how Jesus feels about this church:
Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ also loved the church and gave Himself for her, that He might sanctify and cleanse her with the washing of water by the word, that He might present her to Himself a glorious church, not having spot or wrinkle or any such thing, but that she should be holy and without blemish. So husbands ought to love their own wives as their own bodies; he who loves his wife loves himself. For no one ever hated his own flesh, but nourishes and cherishes it, just as the Lord does the church. For we are members of His body, of His flesh and of His bones. “For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh.” This is a great mystery, but I speak concerning Christ and the church (Eph 5:25-32).
But what then of all the “falling away” and the deception by “traditions of men” and “doctrines of demons”? Didn’t I start this post with a Biblical appeal to the validity of the apostate church?
Well…No, I didn’t!
Not to the validity of an apostate church. In fact every description of apostasy indicates that the apostate fall away from the church of Christ.
Acts 20:28-30: Paul, speaking to the Elders of the church in Ephesus, reminds them of their position of authority given them by the Holy Spirit to protect the church. Warning them that Wolves would come in from outside and even grow up from inside the church – “to draw away the disciples after themselves”.
2 Thess 2:15: Paul tells of the great falling away that will occur before the Return of Christ and that the falling away from the church occurs because people reject the traditions of the Apostles (both the Oral Traditions AND those Written in the Epistles).
1 Tim 4:1: Paul says that in latter times some will depart from the faith, i.e. leave the faith. He goes on in 2 Timothy to describe some of these people that do not endure (stay with) correct doctrine, but seek out teachers who agree with their own erroneous views. An example of a deserter is given in Demas, who is said to have forsaken Paul and run back to the ways of the world. Interestingly Paul, urging Timothy to fight to maintain the Truth he has received, tells him that it is the “house of God”, “the church of the living God” which is “the pillar and ground of the truth”.
2 Pet: Peter warns about many things concerning the way and manner of those who turn away from the truth. Though they seek to bring heresy into the Church, their end result is like the Pig, who after having washed (entering into the church) returns again to wallow in the mud (forsakes the church).
1 John 2:19: John clearly indicates that while many antichrists have already appeared in the church, they are easily identified by the fact that they leave the church. If they had really been a part of the Body of Christ they would not have left the Body. Their exit from the church is their identifying marker.
Jude 3-19: Jude also has a lot to say about the apostates, but a clear indication of their identity is that they deny the clear and established doctrines of the church, rebel against its’ God ordained Authorities and seek to create factions to gather people after themselves.
So where am I going with all of this?
It just seems to me that if Jesus established a Physical Body of Believers as His Own Body and Church. And promised to take care of and protect that Church from heresy and corruption. We need to look a lot further back than the 1500/1600s to find it.
The only two bodies that appear to have any valid historical claim to be the One Holy Catholic and Apostolic Church are the Roman Catholics and the Eastern Orthodox. And in my mind only One of those can actually be correct in their claim, since Jesus and the Apostles say there is only One Church. For various reasons I continually find myself siding with the Orthodox…but I sense the end of this journey may still be a long way off.
I thought about calling this post “Does History Matter?” but immediately realized that the question is ridiculously rhetorical. I think it is reasonable to contend that the largest majority of thinking people would agree that history matters. How it matters is a completely different issue all together.
I’m specifically interested in how we approach the importance of history in relation to our religious beliefs and practices. As noted on my friend Sean’s blog I’m caught in a difficult pull between the church of the past and the church of the future. I see the problem as a choice between two ways of looking at church history. I’ll describe them as Perfect start-Fixed model vs. Good start-Improving model.
I think most people would agree that Jesus knew what he was doing when he called the 12 apostles and gave them the authority and direction to spread the gospel and build community amongst those who received the message. The New Testament is the testimony of that early mission and its’ outcomes in various places around the Mediterranean.
Perfect start-Fixed model
The first option, as I see it, is that what Jesus communicated to his Apostles and to the early church through prophetic and historical witness was the perfect start to the church. It described a fixed model through which God would continue to carry out His mission in the world. The perfect start included what can be found in the New Testament, but also includes the oral and written teachings of the Apostolic Fathers and Early Church Fathers (Tradition) as they continued to uphold the truth passed down to them through the church. The Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox Churches uphold this understanding and believe that they have been given the mission of safe-guarding the truth handed down from generation to generation starting with Jesus and the Apostles.
Good start-Improving model
Another way of looking at it is that the church started off well, even Perfect. The New Testament records describe everything that is necessary for us to understand and practice Christian community. But that very early on, probably by the close of the apostolic age, the church moved steadily away from the truth revealed in and through Jesus and the Apostles. The Apostolic and Early Church Fathers are not reliable accounts of the teachings of Jesus and the Apostles and the manifestation of the church in the 2nd, 3rd, 4th, 5th, 6th, 7th, 8th, 9th, 10th, 11th, 12th, 13th, 14th, and 15th century is an ever darkening image of the teachings of the New Testament church. It is only at the birth of the Protestant reformation that the church begins to return to her New Testament roots and through an ever improving understanding of Jesus and the Gospel the church will either return to a fully Biblical model (Protestant ideal) or even improve on the Good foundation of the Early Church (Emergent ideal).
Getting Back to History
So what is your take on the history of the church?
Taking a closer look at the history of the church has caused me to seriously question my Protestant assumptions about returning to a Biblical and Early Church model. I don’t think Protestants really take church history seriously enough. In fact one of my regrets from my college days is that they forced a year-long church history course into a two-week church history seminar. Clearly they were not concerned that their future ministers would be handicapped by a scant understanding of church history. Is it realistic to try to hurdle over 1500 years of history in order to get back to some kind of perfect ideal that could not even be preserved in communities connected directly to the Apostles. Or perhaps the perfect ideal was preserved but was sometimes expressed imperfectly through individual Christians. And perhaps it was this imperfect expression that caused Martin Luther and others to Protest. I just wonder whether the protest brought us closer to the truth or took us even further away! One of the many things that do concern me about that act of protest is the image it evokes in me of the aftermath – the church like a cracked glass bowl shatters into ever increasing shards – each trying to lay claim to their historical and biblical validity.