Church History: Heretics or Lunatics?
I don’t believe I have ever read anything so compelling and so convicting as the book “Will The Real Heretics Please Stand Up” by David Bercot. So much has changed since the apostolic age; lifestyles, beliefs, the list goes on and on. What comes to my memory is a commercial where a man is standing at an ATM machine withdrawing money from his account. A message comes on the screen informing him of a $3.00 charge for the withdrawal. It prompts him with a question: “Do you wish to continue?” Yes or No are his options. All around him people are urging him to “Just accept it.” In other words, say yes. The man ultimately accepts the charge although by his body language one could tell he disagreed with having to be charged to withdraw funds from his own account.
You may wonder what this story have to do with the ever changing cycle of beliefs in our course of history of religion? In my opinion, a lot. So, let me explain:
Jesus gave us three identifying marks of a faithful servant of the church:
- Separation from the world. (John 15:18,19)
- Unconditional love. (John 13:34,35)
- Obedient trust. (John 14:1,21)
The early church lived in this world but had nothing to do with it. They lived totally independent with principles and values as taught to them by their elders (who were taught by the apostles). There was persecution; however, they endured knowing that their obedience was one that they shared with Christ; who also suffered. They loved all people and would never fight with a sword, and they trusted the Words of Jesus.
Instead of describing how our early brothers and sisters lived, allow me to ask a few questions. Can you live without your entertainment, your recognition as a successful person? Or better yet, can you live without your materialistic things and your riches (for those who have such). What are your views on divorce, abortion, fashion and modesty? Is watching an R rated movie ok? Or what about the subject of evolution before Darwin; can women really have a place in religion?
You may or may not be surprised to hear that these issues were also issues of the first century Christians. Matthew 6:24 tells us that we cannot serve two masters. Although we say we love God we cling oh so tightly to our tangible valuables and dwell in a sea of self-esteem built by man and not God. Compared to our early church…we say we love God, but our hearts are far from Him. We have taken what was wrong in the eyes of the early church and made it right, justifying it with twisted scripture.
We have become a church that has accepted the ways of the world to escape the persecution befallen to us by our ancestors.
After reading this book and learning of the early beliefs and ways of the church according to the Apostles I began to look at my own value system. Believe me…it wasn’t pretty. I was encouraged though to learn that there were men of God who upheld the traditional teachings and still believe in upholding them today. Thank God for the remnant, or we’d all be lost.
The early church grew people spiritually by teaching by example. They didn’t put people out of the church for not being obedient to the beliefs. However, most Christians obediently followed the beliefs of the church.
True people of the cross carried their own cross (Matthew 10:38, 39). We look for a painless way out of things. We don’t want to tell people the ‘other side’ of Jesus…the part of one bearing their own cross. People then were heaven minded.
A true Christian then was willing to pour all he had into his walk with God. He and God worked together as one. Christians then believed that one must earnestly desire and seek God’s help. This wasn’t a one-time request when in a time of need, but a continual process. One must endure a personal ‘internal’ persecution in order to put to death their ways of the flesh. If we aren’t willing to put our fleshly ways down then the power of God cannot work within us (Romans 8:13).
But just what did they believe about salvation? Are we saved by faith alone? Do Christians earn their salvation by works? Are faith and works mutually exclusive? You may be surprised what the early church believed. Does it compare to what we believe today? What about salvation by grace alone? It is not feasible to answer all these questions in this article. I recommend you read the book for yourself and allow the Holy Spirit to guide you into the truth.
What about predestination and free will? Do you believe in predestination? Are you sure it’s what you think you believe? Deuteronomy 30:19, Romans 9:16, 2 Peter 3:9, and Romans 9:18 are some examples of scripture concerning these subjects. You may also be surprised that some of our beliefs today were taken from the Gnostics. Yes, the group of heretics that tried to disqualify the beliefs of the early church had a hand in twisting the minds of believers into thinking that we were all predestined to be either a believer or not. The Gnostics were the earthly thorn; the Pharisees of the early church.
How can God harden the heart of one and soften the heart of another. How can the one with the hardened heart be destined for hell with no hope for eternal life? Can God really be a just God to judge both of these? There was a very good discussion made by Origen concerning this subject and one I certainly gleaned from. God knows the heart of man, and He will use the hardened heart of one (i.e. Pharaoh) to soften the hearts of others (the people of Egypt). God knew Pharaoh’s heart!
What about salvation and baptism? Should a Christian be prosperous? Is the health and wealth gospel of today a valid teaching? One might be surprised to hear (or not) that water baptism was an important part of one’s salvation. It wasn’t a ‘sinner’s prayer’ and a walk to the front of the building for alter call that justified their salvation. No, they lived by the Word of God in Romans 10:9 that if one confessed Jesus with their mouth and believed in their heart that God raised him from the dead then they would be saved. Water Baptism came immediately afterwards as a remission of sins. They based their beliefs on these passages, among others: Acts 22:16, Titus 3:5, 1 Peter 3:21, and Acts 2:38.
The primary teaching of the early church was oral, they didn’t teach out of a book, or from the letters that were sent to them from the Apostles. The teachings from the Apostles established church government, methods of worship, and mode of baptism. These were oral and not written. These teachings of the Apostles were ones that became traditions or customs and were never questioned but gladly followed through.
Revelation – Fact or Fiction?
The Apostles of the New Testament age possessed the authority of the Lord. They didn’t introduce anything new nor did they try to add to what had been taught to them. Tertullian stated that “in the Lord’s apostles we posses our authority. Even they did not of themselves choose to introduce anything [new], but they faithfully delivered to the nations (of mankind) the doctrine they had received from Christ. If, therefore, even ‘an angel from heaven should preach any other gospel,’ we would call him accursed…We therefore draw up this rule; Since the Lord Jesus Christ sent the apostles to preach, no others should be received as preachers [of original doctrine] than those whom Christ appointed…”
According to the early church there were no new revelations of God. What had already been spoken was it. The leaders of the early church were men of integrity and fought to keep the preservation of the New Testament rejecting any new teachings that didn’t come from the Apostles.
So what happened after these faithful apostles passed on? They consulted the disciples. If this is so then how and when did Christianity become corrupt? There were four walls the early church had established to keep them separate from the world and to safely justify and keep their values and beliefs. The following are the four towering walls:
- The firm conviction that there was no new special revelation after the time of the apostles and an ultra-conservative spirit that equated change with error.
- The church’s separation from the world, protecting Christianity from being influenced by the currents of worldly attitudes and practices.
- The voluntary practice of referring questions to the elders in churches where the apostles had taught.
- The independence of each congregation, making it difficult for any erroneous teachings to spread quickly through the church.
Satan realized it was best to try to destroy from within. For the first two centuries the beliefs of the early church remained intact. It wasn’t until the third century did the crumbling of these walls begin.
Constantine’s Doctrinal Debut
Constantine was a Roman general who became the ruler of the Western half of the Roman Empire in 312. He also issued the Edict of Milan in 313, which gave Christianity recognition by the state for the first time. His Counsel of Nicene that he convened caused more harm than good to the Christian faith. It began the shift of a relationship with Jesus Christ and living a lifestyle of faith to doctrine. Through this counsel elders and Bishops of the churches were called together in hopes of settling disputes of doctrinal beliefs that began as a result of blending together church and state. The following are examples of this counsel:
- Dazzling the masses with glimmering church buildings invites people in which means more can be converted.
- Marketing the cross. People claimed to see images of Jesus in objects. This resulted in a frenzy of people buying relics in hopes of owning a piece of something holy.
- If you feed them, they will come.
- Growth indicates the blessings of God.
Those churches that refused to conform to the new church-wide creed would be banished into exile. Five churches refused to conform. No teaching except that which was introduced by the Nicene council would be tolerated. Eventually more and more creeds were established and the original apostolic teaching bid a temporary farewell.
Most Bible theologians can probably quote what happened in the trail that led to where we are today. From Martin Luther, to John Wesley there were major leaps to restore the early Christian beliefs of Christianity. However, history has a tendency to repeat itself and following the ways of early Christianity allowed for interpretation misunderstandings. The basic principles already defined seemed to have lost their meaning in a sea of interpretation.
It is interesting to note here that by the 1700’s the Church of England had regressed into a lethargic church of the educated, the cultured, and the wealthy (sound familiar?). Finally it was Wesley who realized that a spiritual revolution begins on the inside of a person with the help of the Holy Spirit. He realize that a change on the inside of a person reflects on the outside…by his lifestyle. Thus began a revelation that turned England and America upside down. Finally a ministry was catching on to the early church and their understanding of a relationship with Jesus Christ and being empowered by the Holy Spirit. Following the years of Wesley other movements attempted to restore apostolic Christianity.
In closing I should mention that we as Christians, cannot say that our, and only our, beliefs and lifestyle are right and others are wrong. When we reflect back on early apostolic Christianity we find that there are skeletons in our own closet that need to be brought out and repented of.
Should we throw away everything we’ve learned, move off to a desolate area with our family and adopt the ways of the early Christians? Should we rebuke others because their opinion on salvation or baptism is different than ours? Certainly not! We should consider that perhaps it is our own belief system that might be misinterpreting what we’re reading. Matter of fact, the early Christians would have never caused a schism over a belief. Instead they respected the opinion of their elder.
Who are we to judge? Matthew 7:1, 2 tells us that the manner in which we judge we will be judged. We cannot dismiss what the Word of God says. It is what it is.
Which brings me back to the beginning of my story. What did the story of the man at the ATM machine have to do with this article? Everything. All through the centuries after the death of the Apostles, man has tried to change and re-write what Jesus taught. The people of the congregation, was at the mercy of the elders and bishops to accept what they instructed them to do. When Constantine formed the creeds that changed Christianity the people had to either accept it or be exiled from their country.
I can hear the leaders now, out of fear for their jobs and their lives, attempting to convince the people to ‘just say yes.’ Press the ‘yes’ button and get your withdrawal. Let’s get on with this so there will be no harm done. Accept the ways of the world. Become one with the state and no harm will come to you. Just ‘accept it!’ It wasn’t until they became one with the world did the persecution stop. How did something so wrong become so right?