A Lesson from the Past

John E. Todd, Chesterfield, England [SEE PROFILE BELOW]

Can we really learn anything from the past?

The present is the child of the past. Situations and events of the present cannot be really understood without some knowledge of the situations and events of the past that have brought about the present. History is the parent of the present. This applies also to church history. And there is a lot of church history, nearly 2000 years of it!

The surprising thing about Christians generally is not their lack of knowledge about church history, but their lack of desire to know about church history. ‘I’ve got my Bible, brother, that’s all I need’, seems to be the attitude. There are three events in church history, which although they are separated from each other by many centuries, yet nevertheless are linked together to form one great lesson, for they are the cause of the present state of Christendom.

For the first three hundred years of its existence the church was persecuted. In the first place this was by the Jews, as recorded in the book of the Acts of the Apostles, then later by the Roman Empire. But why persecute Christians? After all, their very faith demands that they eschew crime, live honest lives, be good neighbours and honour the governing powers. Surely they should be valued as exemplary citizens! The answer lies in the nature of state religions.

The true nature of Christianity

Christianity is a personal faith. People must freely choose to repent of their sins before God and by faith commit themselves to the Lord Jesus Christ as their crucified Saviour and their risen Lord in order to become Christians. A state religion regards everyone as members of the religion by virtue of their natural birth; there is no choice involved. Also, in a state religion politics and religion are one. To choose to take up another religion is not only regarded by the state as heresy from the religious point of view; it is also dangerous disloyalty from the political point of view. The state cannot allow its citizens to choose another religion for this would be to opt out of society itself. This, in their view, would be to break up the unity of the society and therefore destroy the state. The state must protect itself, the heretical subversives must be suppressed, violently if necessary, in order to preserve the wellbeing of the state.

The clash between Christianity and the Jewish religion

The Jewish religion under the old covenant was a state religion. The religion was entered by natural birth; circumcision of the male babies on the eighth day was the mark of the covenant, Lev. 12. 3; Gal. 5. 3. Religion and politics were one. Most of the four books of Moses, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy, are given over to political matters. This was largely how to organize the thirteen tribes (count them in Numbers chapter 1!) into a coherent nation even to the extent of how they were to fight their wars, Deut. 20.

Saul of Tarsus saw that Christianity would destroy the national faith and the unity of Jewish society. He therefore led the persecution of the church, involving the martyrdom of Stephen and the scattering of the church from Jerusalem, Acts 8. 1. But as the church grew and spread into the Gentile world it came to the attention of the Roman authorities. Rome only allowed licensed religions that had at their summit the worship of the Emperor. The Christians could not worship the pagan idols for they believed in God the Creator, neither could they worship the Emperor for the Lord Jesus Christ was their Lord. Therefore, for both religious and political reasons, Rome must persecute them with the purpose of their extermination. But the blood of the martyrs proved to be the seeds of the church.

The origin of the Roman Catholic Church, the first of the events that shaped the future of Christianity

The first of the three events we are considering occurred in the fourth century AD. A decisive situation had arisen. The Roman Empire was in deep trouble; it was weakened by internal strife and heavily pressed by the pagan hordes on its borders. Christianity had by this time, despite persecution, grown to the detriment of and deserting of many of the pagan temples. The Emperor Constantine and his successors chose to make the Christian church the state religion in the belief that this would cement together their crumbling Empire. But this was a perversion of all that the New Testament taught. No need now for the preaching of the gospel for everyone was now classed as a ‘Christian’ by his or her natural birth. Infant baptism now became the order of the day and baptismal regeneration its explanation. As the pagans and their priests flooded into the ‘church’ superstition replaced sound doctrine.

Thus was born the Roman Catholic ‘Church’ the word ‘catholic’ meaning ‘all embracing’, ‘including all’ and this meant the Roman Empire. Rome with its Emperors became the rulers of the society-embracing church. The Bishop of Rome also increased in power and influence. When the Roman Emperor left Rome to build a new capital city at Byzantium, renaming it Constantinople after himself, the Bishop of Rome became paramount in power in Rome itself. In the year AD 313 Constantine signed the ‘Edict of Milan’. This restored the church buildings to the Christians with compensation.

In the same year Constantine sent out letters to the Proconsul of Africa ordering all properties to be restored to the ‘Catholic Church of the Christians’. One letter to the Bishop of Carthage stated that clergy were to be paid from government treasuries. Another to a provincial governor Anulinus declared that all clergy were to be exempt from public duties. In the year AD 380 the Emperor Theodosius 1 issued an edict that all Romans were to become ‘Catholic Christians’, and all who refused were dismissed as ‘madmen’. In the year AD 445 the Emperor Valentinian issued an edict that the Bishop of Rome was to be pre-eminent and the first true Pope was called Leo. Thus the power of the Roman Catholic Church grew and at its head was the Pope. The Pope’s power so increased that by AD 800 Leo the Third crowned Charlemagne the King of the Franks as the first Emperor of the Holy Roman Empire.

The coming of the Reformation, the second event

This idea of a society-embracing church held sway for over a thousand years until the sixteenth century when the second event of the three we are considering occurred, namely the Reformation. With the invention of printing, the translation of the scriptures into the vernacular and the increase in education, the truth began to dawn. People began to realize that they had been deceived on a colossal scale by the Roman Catholic Church. They had been taught a mass of man-made superstitions in the name of Christianity and such superstitions as baptismal regeneration and transubstantiation were among these.

The true gospel now came to light, which was the grace of God revealed in justification by faith through the redeeming work of the Lord Jesus Christ. But the reformation that followed this scriptural awakening was only a partial reformation. Justification by faith must inevitably result in gathered churches. For only those who became Christians by faith in the Lord Jesus Christ could be members of His church. This church could only be seen as being separate from the society in general. As John Wycliffe wrote in 1378, the church was ‘the congregation of the predestined’. As William Tyndale wrote in 1525, the church was ‘Christ’s body which is the congregation of them that believe’. And later John Huss wrote, ‘The church of God is the community of the elect’.

But John Calvin for all his scholarship failed to understand this. Although he advocated justification by faith, yet so ingrained in people’s minds was the thousand-year-old idea of the society-embracing church that he set up his ‘godly society’ in Geneva. But Martin Luther did understand the significance of justification by faith, in that it destroyed the concept of a state church. Luther wrote in 1526, ‘Those who are seriously determined to be Christians and confess the gospel with hand and mouth, must enroll themselves by name and meet apart in one house, for prayer, for reading, to baptize, to take the sacrament, and exercise other Christian works. Then at last we should come to be a Christian assembly’.

But in the very next year, 1527, Luther did not or could not follow the light he had received from scripture. In the state church situation that prevailed, as a leading theologian, he was also a leading political figure. If Luther abandoned the state church system and opted for gathered churches, then, because religion and politics were one, political anarchy would follow. Such a catastrophe could not be contemplated. So Luther broke with Rome, and the independent state church, the Lutheran church, came into being. He now not only repudiated his former followers, but actually persecuted them! These former followers were called Anabaptists, meaning re-baptizers, because having formerly been ‘baptized’ as babies they now practised believer’s baptism by immersion. Others who separated from Rome set up national state churches also. Thus the Reformation was only a partial reformation. These state churches were in a self-contradictory position. A state church embracing everyone in the population, yet teaching that people could only become Christians by a personal exercise of repentance and faith for justification. But theologians, like politicians, are never at a loss for a form of words to cover the selfcontradictory. So there was invented the theory of the ‘visible church’ and the ‘invisible church’. The visible church was seen as the state church and the invisible church being the believers in the state church. In Lutheranism the invisible church of believers took the form of ‘fellowships within’ the state church structure.

Another convoluted theological argument was that godparents could answer for the faith of the baby. A kind of faith by proxy! Luther even went to the length of advocating that the baby itself had faith because it could not be proved that the babe did not have faith!

So, ever since the sixteenth century Protestantism has limped along in the name of Christianity with this irreconcilable theology. In order to rid themselves of the self-contradictory situation Christians withdrew from the state churches. These ‘non-conformists’ were persecuted. But having rejected Rome, and now rejecting state churches, they still organized denominational systems, which although not state churches, were pale reflections of them, for the individual congregations were federated under a central control, with a professional clergy as the bureaucrats of the system. The federations differed from denomination to denomination in the strength of the central control. With some the central control was complete over the individual congregations. With others the degree of control varied to almost complete freedom for the individual congregations. There is also variation in the central control from one individual to an elected committee and even further to an annual conference of elected delegates. The methods of election to the central body also vary.

The coming of recognizable independent assemblies of Christians

The third event we are to consider completes the Reformation and brings some believers back to the position of the New Testament. This took place in the early nineteenth century. Then an ever-increasing number of independent assemblies of believers came into being. They were not seeking to be ‘reformers’ or ‘nonconformists’; they were seeking to follow the church order found in the New Testament which is gathering together in the Lord’s Name not in a denominational name, ‘for where two or three are gathered in my name, there am I in the midst of them’, Matt. 18. 20. They looked to the Holy Spirit to raise up in their midst elders able to teach and pastor the assembly in accordance with the scripture, ‘the flock, in which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers, to care for the church of God’, Acts 20. 28; Titus 1. 5- 9; 1 Tim. 3. 1-7. Also, deacons were recognized as there to serve the congregation, ‘Those who serve well as deacons gain a good standing for themselves’, 1 Tim. 3. 13, Acts 6. 1-6. They recognized the Lord Jesus Christ as the sole Head of the church, ‘My church’ He said, Matt 16. 18; Eph. 1. 15-23. So they determined to follow His teaching and not men’s religious ideas, and so save themselves from having made void the word of God by any ‘tradition of men’, Matt. 15. 6. They maintained contact with their risen Head by means of prayer, Acts 1. 14; 2. 42; 4. 24.

A summary and a concluding comment

Thus we have the situation of Christendom today. The Church of Rome is still going from strength to strength numerically. The state churches, weakened by public indifference are now unable to persecute those who do not conform to their dictates. The non-conformist denominations are proliferating in ever increasing numbers but all sharing the same bureaucratic desire for organization. The church of Jesus Christ is a spiritual entity relying solely upon the word of God for guidance, and the Spirit of God for His spiritual gifts, with the Lord Jesus Christ as its sole Administrator.

The first event in the fourth century was the perversion of Christianity by the Roman Emperors who changed the personal faith in Christ for a state religion. The second event in the sixteenth century was the retention of state churches. This was despite the rediscovery in scripture of justification by a personal faith in Christ alone. The third event in the nineteenth century was the return from human control to the biblical order of congregations of believers directly dependent on the headship of Christ.

The lesson is that Christianity is a personal faith and the church consists of congregations of believers, not a state religion or a denominational system organized by men.

EDITOR’S NOTE: This article is taking a broad sweep of the developing trends of Church History and by its very nature has to ignore, to some degree, the fact that there have always been believers gathered in New Testament simplicity down the ages. I do not believe that these truths have only been realized and practised since the year 1800. Please read E. H. Broadbent‘s The Pilgrim Church.

AUTHOR PROFILE: John has been constributing articles to assembly magazines since 1986. together with his wife he began work amongst children that led to establishment of the assembly. Now he serves the assembly as an elder and in the ministry of God's word.