Statement of Fundamental Beliefs -
What Happened to the Church?
Jesus Christ said: "I will build My church, and the gates of Hades [the grave] shall not prevail against it" (Matthew 16:18). Which church did Jesus build, and what happened to it?
When the Bible speaks of the Church, it is never speaking of a building or of a human organization incorporated under secular authority. The word in the Greek language that is translated "church" in English is ekklesia. It is derived from two root words in Greek and literally means "called out" or "called from." In secular usage, it referred to an assembly of citizens who were "called out" from the inhabitants of the city to consider some matter of importance. It was often used in the Greek translation of the Old Testament to refer to the congregation of Israel or to the assembly of God's people. "Congregation" or "assembly" expresses the meaning in New Testament usage as well.
However, the "called out" aspect of ekklesia is fundamental to understanding the Church. In Genesis 12 we read that Abraham was "called out" by God from Ur of the Chaldees. In Exodus 12 we read of Abraham's descendants, the children of Israel, being "called out" by God from Egypt. They then became the congregation of Israel or the "Church in the Wilderness" (Acts 7:38, KJV).
One of God's final warnings to His people is a call to "come out" of Babylon (Revelation 18:4). The saints of God are not to participate in that corrupt, end-time culture's sins so that they will not partake of the divine punishments that "Babylon" will receive.
Jesus made it plain that one cannot come to Him, and be part of His Church, without being called by the Father (John 6:44). Only those who respond to the Father's call, through repentance and baptism, will receive the Holy Spirit (Acts 2:38), and it is only through the Holy Spirit of God that we become part of the Church that Jesus built (Romans 8:9; 1 Corinthians 12:13).
What happened to the Church that Jesus Christ said He would build? Did it adapt and change with the times through progressive revelation? Did it veer "off the track" and need to undergo a reformation at the hands of such men as Martin Luther and John Calvin? Or, has there been a body of believers, down through the centuries, continuing to believe and practice the same doctrines Jesus Christ and the first-century Apostles taught?
When we look at the story of the mainstream, professing Christian church throughout the centuries, it appears to be a vastly different church from the one described in the pages of your New Testament. In the book of Acts we find that God's Church celebrated "Jewish" holy days (Acts 2:1; 13:14, 42, 44; 18:21), talked about the return of Jesus Christ to judge the world (Acts 3:20-21; 17:31) and believed in the literal establishment of the Kingdom of God on earth (Acts 1:3, 6; 28:23).
Yet, less than 300 years later, we find a church claiming Apostolic origin, but observing the "venerable day of the Sun" instead of the seventh-day Sabbath. When that church assembled its bishops to discuss doctrinal matters at the Council of Nicea, the meeting was presided over by a Roman Emperor-Constantine! How could such an amazing transformation have taken place? What happened?
Protestant author Jesse Lyman Hurlbut acknowledged the dramatic change that took place in his book, The Story of the Christian Church. He wrote: "For fifty years after St. Paul's life a curtain hangs over the church, through which we strive vainly to look; and when at last it rises, about 120AD with the writings of the earliest church-fathers, we find a church in many aspects very different from that in the days of St. Peter and St. Paul" (p. 41).
The history of the Christian church between Pentecost of 31AD and the Council of Nicea in 325AD, almost 300 years later, is truly amazing. It is the story of how yesterday's orthodoxy became today's heresy, and how old heresies came to be considered orthodox Christian doctrine. It is the story of how church tradition and the teaching of bishops came to supersede the Word of God as a source of doctrine. It is a story that is stranger than fiction, yet is historically verifiable.
Simon and "Another Gospel"
In Acts 8, we are introduced to a man who was used by Satan to infiltrate and subvert God's Church. This man was Simon, the sorcerer from Samaria, better known in secular history as Simon Magus. Simon was considered by the Samaritans to be God's divinely chosen representative (Acts 8:9-10). Eduard Lohse, writing in The New Testament Environment, states that the expression, "the great power of God," represents Simon's "claim to be the bearer of divine revelation" (p. 269). Simon was baptized and became a nominal Christian, along with the rest of the Samaritans. However, the Apostle Peter recognized Simon's real motives. In Acts 8:22-23 Peter rebuked him in the strongest terms as being "in the gall of bitterness, and in the bond of iniquity" (KJV).
Who were the Samaritans? The book of 2 Kings tells us that when the northern ten tribes of Israel were deported by the King of Assyria, Babylonians were settled in their place. These Babylonian Samaritans continued to practice their old Babylonian paganism, but with the added infusion of biblical terminology to obscure what they were doing (2 Kings 17:33, 41). Though they professed adherence to the God of Israel, they did not really obey God's law (v. 34). In fact, as is made plain in the books of Ezra and Nehemiah, they became enemies of the true Work of God.
The Samaritans, just as the Jews, had become dispersed throughout the known world in the aftermath of Alexander the Great's conquests. There were Samaritan colonies in several major centers of the Roman Empire, including Alexandria, Egypt and Rome. Simon had admirers and adherents among these people.
Samaritanism, with its blending of Babylonian paganism and lip-service to the God of Israel, was also heavily influenced by Greek philosophy. Simon Magus added to this an acknowledgment of Jesus Christ as the Redeemer of mankind. However, as Jesus explained: "Not every one who says to Me, 'Lord, Lord,' shall enter into the kingdom of heaven, but he who does the will of My Father in heaven" (Matthew 7:21). Simon used the name of Jesus, but substituted a different message-a message that did away with the need to really obey God and keep His commandments!
Eerdman's Handbook to the History of Christianity notes: "Early Christian writers regarded Simon as the fount of all heresies" (p. 100). The Encyclopaedia Britannica (11th ed.) in its article on Simon Magus identifies him as the "founder of a school of Gnostics and as a father of heresy." Noted historian Edward Gibbon says the Gnostics "blended with the faith of Christ many sublime but obscure tenets which they derived from oriental philosophy" (The Triumph of Christendom in the Roman Empire, p. 15).
Gnosticism (the term is derived from the Greek word for knowledge) was a highly intellectual way of life. It represented a blending of Babylonian mystery religion, Greek philosophical speculation and an overlay of biblical terminology. Among the Gnostics, biblical accounts were not taken literally but were treated as allegories used to teach deeper "truths." "The Mosaic account of the creation… was treated with profound derision by the Gnostics" (Gibbon, p. 13). Gnosticism stressed pagan dualism with its emphasis on the immortality of the soul and the inherent evil of matter. It also introduced much vain speculation on the nature of God and the spirit realm. Several New Testament books-including the Gospel of John, Colossians and 1 John-were written to refute the Gnostic heresies that Simon Magus and many others began to spread.
Hellenistic culture, which pervaded the Middle East and Mediterranean regions, was an alternative worldview-a competitor to the perspective and values of the Bible. It stressed the supremacy of reason and logic rather than divine revelation. The later Greeks, embarrassed by the ribald antics of their ancient gods and heroes in the writings of Homer and Hesiod, sought to explain them away as profound allegories. This approach to their "inspired" writings was picked up by Hellenistic Jews, such as Philo of Alexandria, and applied to the Bible. This treatment of the Old Testament as an allegory was a handy tool for Gnostics and others who wanted to evade obedience to plain commands.
About 15 years after the baptism of Simon Magus, the Apostle Paul found it necessary to warn the Church in Thessalonica, "the mystery of lawlessness is already at work" (2 Thessalonians 2:7). About five years later Paul warned the Corinthians that they were in danger of being corrupted by false apostles teaching "another Jesus" and "another gospel." Simon and his followers were, in reality, ministers of Satan masquerading as ministers of Christ (2 Corinthians 11:3-4, 13-15).
By the 60s AD, the Apostle Jude, brother to James and Jesus Christ, exhorted Christians of the necessity to "contend earnestly for the faith which was once for all delivered to the saints"(Jude 3). He went on to warn that there were certain men who had stealthily crept into the church organization, trying to turn grace into lawlessness by teaching that God's law was no longer necessary (v. 4). By Jude's time, the true faith had already been once and for all delivered. Modern scholars who claim that it remained for second and third century theologians to begin to formulate an accurate understanding of God's nature would do well to reread Jude 3. It is clear that Jude does not allow for "progressive revelation"!
Writing at the close of the first century, almost 30 years after the rest of the New Testament was completed, the aged Apostle John had to contend with heresies that were far more widespread than those of the days of Paul and Jude. John repeatedly emphasized the necessity of keeping God's commandments (1 John 2:3; 3:4, 22; 5:3). He stressed in 2 John 7: "Many deceivers have gone out into the world." In 3 John 9-10, a leader by the name of Diotrephes had gained control of some congregations in Asia Minor and was actually putting out of the Church true Christians that remained loyal to the aged Apostle John and his teachings.
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