This is our third lesson on the theme: "The One, True Church." Thus far, we have seen from the Bible that Jesus wants unity in His church and that He and His church cannot be separated. We have emphasized that the church is part of God's eternal plan to save man and that the church belonging to Christ is not a denomination. We have shown that the Old Testament foretold the coming of God's kingdom, the church, and we have demonstrated that there were many in the first century who worked to prepare for the coming of that kingdom.
Our focus today will be twofold. First, we will prove that the church really did come into existence exactly as the prophets had predicted. Second, we will consider some of the major points in the history of the church.
FIRST, THE CHURCH OF CHRIST WAS ESTABLISHED ON PENTECOST.
All of the prophecies we considered in our prior lesson pertaining to the establishment of the church were fulfilled (or began to be fulfilled) on the Day of Pentecost in Acts 2. The apostles, in obedience to Jesus' instructions, were waiting in Jerusalem to be endued with power from on high. In Acts 2:1-4, the Holy Spirit came upon them and they began to speak in languages in which they had never studied before. This pouring out of the Spirit, and the miracles that accompanied it, had been predicted by Joel and Jesus (cf. Joel 2:28,29; Acts 1:8). Such was to take place "in the last days," and it did (cf. Isa. 2:1; Acts 2:17; Heb. 1:1,2). It happened during the reign of the Roman rulers (cf. Dan. 2:44; Luke 2:1; 3:1) in Jerusalem (cf. Joel 2:32; Isa. 2:1,3; Acts 2:5). As Peter preached, he described the Son of David (i.e., the Christ) as reigning at the right hand of God on an eternal throne (cf. Acts 2:30-33; II Sam. 7:12,13).
The Lord's church began in Jerusalem on the first Pentecost after the resurrection of Christ when 3000 souls called on the name of the Lord through faith (cf. Joel 2:32; Acts 2:21,38). These penitent believers were baptized for the remissions of their sins and added by the Lord to His church (cf. Acts 2:37-47). It is important to note that Acts 2:47 is the first passage where the church is no longer spoken of in the future tense. Prior to that point, the church was merely being prepared for; it was approaching. After Acts 2 and through the remainder of the New Testament, the church is always spoken of as being in existence. Thus, Acts 2 is a turning point; it is where Jesus' church began. Today, we can be added by the same Lord to the same church by obeying the same gospel in the same way! Now remember any church that did not originate in Jerusalem in the first century is not the church that God said He would build. Any such church is false, no matter how good their intentions.
SECOND, LET US CONSIDER A BRIEF SURVEY OF CHURCH HISTORY.
It is of interest to point out that the history of God's people in the Old Testament is a history of faithfulness, apostasy, and restoration. This is also true of the history of the church.
Jesus, during His earthly ministry, labored to prepare for the establishment of His church. However, even before He built His church, He warned of false prophets who would come (cf. Matt. 7:15). The apostle Paul warned the Ephesian elders about false teachers (cf. Acts 20:28-32). Paul also predicted that there would be a falling away (cf. II Thess. 2:1-10). The Holy Spirit spoke of some who would depart from the faith - "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" (I Tim. 4:1-3).
So, departures from the early church were predicted. Historically, it can be seen that many started abandoning the New Testament pattern just a few years after it had been completely revealed. The gradual development of the papacy can be traced back to the second century, where changes were made in the leadership structure of the church. The New Testament teaches that each congregation of the Lord's body ought to have elders or shepherds to tend to the spiritual flock (i.e., the Christians). In Titus 1:5, Titus was instructed to "appoint elders in every city..." Note the plural use, "elders," and do not overlook the importance of the word "every." I Timothy 3 and Titus 1 record a list of requirements for elders. Nowhere does the New Testament authorize the practice of having only one elder. Nor does God's word teach that there should be a chief elder among the others. A church should have elders, if there are qualified men for such, but these elders have no Scriptural right to rule over anyone else except the Christians in that congregation or city. Why would Paul have told Titus to appoint elders in every city if it was acceptable to appoint a few elders in one place to rule over many churches in a region?
Friends, little by little, there arose the practice of making one elder chief among the others in a congregation. This "special elder" would be called the "bishop." But, changes to the New Testament pattern did not stop there. Soon the "bishops" of large, influential churches began to rule over other churches in the area. By the fourth century, there were "bishops" who were then called "patriarchs" who ruled in Rome, Constantinople, Antioch, Alexandria, and Jerusalem. These men were responsible for large regions that included many congregations. Eventually, in 606 A.D., Boniface III of Rome took the title "Universal Bishop of the Church" and became the first pope. The questions we must ask are this: where can I read about this in the Bible? Where does the Bible describe a need for special "bishops" and "patriarchs" and a "pope"? I can read about the need for elders in every congregation, but not about any need for human spiritual leadership beyond that level! Could it be that the rise of Catholicism from early, pure Christianity is the very departure that Jesus, Paul, and the Holy Spirit warned of? I believe the answer is a strong "yes"!
Tragically, the changes that people were making to first-century Christianity went beyond just the leadership structure of the church. It is easy to see the rise of a clergy class in Catholicism. A separate priesthood patterned after the Jewish and pagan systems emerged. It was soon believed that only the priests could preach, give the Lord's Supper, baptize, and perform wedding ceremonies and funerals. Where can one read about a separate priesthood for Christianity? Certainly not in the New Testament! The New Covenant affirms that all Christians are priests (cf. I Pet. 2:5,9,10). Another innovation, enforced in 1075 A.D. by Pope Gregory VIII, was celibacy for priests. Is celibacy ever mentioned in the New Testament? It is, as we saw earlier in I Timothy 4:1-3. However, in that passage celibacy is not commanded or even encouraged. The passage simply teaches that there would be some who would forbid others to marry, but the Spirit says that those who made such rules were deceived and giving heed to doctrines of demons! Does that sound like God approves of binding celibacy upon those who are qualified for marriage?
As doctrinal problems arose in the church, there were councils held as early as the second century to settle disputes. There is certainly nothing wrong with a group of Christians getting together to study an issue and attempt to come to a conclusion that is in harmony with God's word. However, the councils went well beyond that purpose. The first human creed was produced by the Council of Nicea in 325 A.D. This was a man-made document that some followed as if it were God's word! How sad! There is always a need for serious Bible study and discussion, but there is never a need to invent creeds to which one must pledge his allegiance. The New Testament is the only creed that a Christian needs--period!
There are a host of other doctrinal departures that caused people to drift even further away from the revealed New Testament pattern for Christianity. The doctrine of original sin began to be taught in the second century and was made popular by Augustine. This is a false doctrine that teaches that Adam and Eve's original sin is passed on to every generation. Thus, according to this theory, babies are born with sin. Such could not be further from the truth (cf. Ezek. 18:20; Matt. 18:1-4). This false notion of original sin then led to the alleged need for infant baptism--another concept that is completely foreign to the Scriptures. All of the recorded conversions in the New Testament involved accountable adults who believed in Jesus Christ and were willing to turn from sin. How can a baby do either of these things?
Other baptismal innovations included the gradual acceptance of sprinkling and pouring. In 251, Novatian, a sick man, was "soaked" in his bed instead of being immersed in water for the remission of his sins. In 1311, the Council of Ravenna declared that sprinkling and pouring were just as valid as immersion. Dear listeners, who gave them the right to affirm such (cf. Rom. 6:4)?
Let us now consider some worship innovations. In the fourth century, it is documented that a special class of singers became common in the church. This is where the modern notion of a church choir comes from. In 660, Pope Vitalian is believed to be the first one to introduce instrumental music into Christian worship. As late as 1250, such was still not accepted in the Catholic church. However, today, other than the church of Christ, it is exceedingly rare to find any group that will oppose church choirs and instrumental music in worship. Yet none of the promoters of such can show in the New Testament where God has authorized instrumental music for Christian worship (cf. Eph. 5:19; Col. 3:16).
There are several worship innovations pertaining to the Lord's Supper worthy of mentioning (cf. I Cor. 11:23ff). "Closed" communion began to be practiced in the second century (i.e., certain ones were restricted from partaking of the memorial). Communion "in one kind" (i.e., with only one element being used) began in the twelfth century. Transubstantiation (i.e., the idea that the bread and fruit of the vine literally become the body and blood of the Lord when ingested) was adopted by the 4th Lateran Council in 1215. We could go on and on and talk about the veneration of Mary and images, the sale of indulgences, the creating of religious holidays, etc., but you get the idea.
All of these departures I have mentioned were associated with the Catholic Church (i.e., the church that turned away from true New Testament Christianity and charted its own religious course of apostasy). Was there any opposition to the Catholic Church? Yes, but it was not significant numerically until 1054 when the Greek Orthodox Church broke away from the Roman Catholic Church. Other opposition was found later in the form of individuals like Peter Waldo, who, in 1150, translated the New Testament and opposed the Roman Church. Also, John Huss of Bohemia called for a return to the Bible. He was burned at the stake in 1415 by the Catholic Church. A man by the name of John Wycliffe also made a big impact by translating the Bible into English in 1382. He has been called "the morning star of the Reformation."
But, what is the Reformation? The Reformation was a religious movement that got started in the early 1500s that focused upon reforming some of the many errors of the Catholic Church. In 1517, Martin Luther, a monk, challenged the sale of indulgences. In 1530, followers of Luther adopted the Augsburg Confession and became the first Protestant denomination. In 1534, King Henry VIII of England broke with the Pope and formed the Church of England. Other religious reformers included Ulrich Zwingli, John Calvin, John Knox, John Smythe, and John Wesley. Zwingli was a Swiss reformer who was close to the New Testament pattern. Calvin led the Reformation from Geneva and published "Institutes of the Christian Religion" in 1536. Knox led the Reformation in Scotland which resulted in the Presbyterian Church. Smythe founded the Baptist Church in 1607. Wesley, in 1729, tried to reform the Church of England and ended up founding the Methodist Church.
So, in a nutshell, early departures from New Testament Christianity resulted in the establishment of the Catholic Church. Around 1500, many started trying to reform the Catholic Church. However, this resulted in the creation of many different religious bodies, each with differing doctrines. But, in the early 1800s, something special started happening in many places. Men and women began pleading for a return to the Bible and to the Bible alone! Their desire was to restore the first century church rather than trying to reform existing denominations. Thus, their activities came to be known as the Restoration Movement. Some of the primary leaders of the Restoration were: Thomas and Alexander Campbell, Walter Scott, and Barton W. Stone. These men, and others, turned their backs upon denominationalism and the traditions, man-made names, and creeds associated with such. They embraced genuine first-century Christianity and taught that there was one, true church built by the Lord Jesus Christ. They accepted the fact that the word of God is spiritual seed (cf. Luke 8:11), and that when such is allowed to freely germinate and develop in the heart of an individual, it should produce the same result today as it did in the days of the apostles. Thus, these men did not endeavor to create any new churches. They did not try to add to the religious chaos that already reigned supreme. They labored to come back to the Bible in all things, and to cling to it as their objective standard of authority. What a noble goal! It is a goal that I have adopted, and I hope you will too, if you have not done so already. Friends, we can simply be Christians; we can simply be members of Jesus' church--just like they did in the first century!
Admittedly, we have touched on many subjects in this lesson today, and time does not permit us to go into great depth on any of them. There were many doctrinal matters that I made comments about, and although I made my position clear on these issues, there is much more proof that could be considered about all of them. If you have questions about anything mentioned in this lesson, please do not hesitate to contact us. Members of the church of Christ are not interested in the traditions of men or the religious ideas that humans have originated over the past two millennia. What we are interested in is the truth, and we hope that you are too! It is only the truth that will set us free (cf. John 8:31,32).