Lesson 3 The History Of The Church

“And lo, I am with you always, even to the end of the age” (Matt. 28:20)

The eternal plan of the Lord Jesus for His Church is being worked out in history. The record is filled with many ups and downs, sometimes called advances and recessions. The Church will triumph ultimately, but it has not always been triumphant in its history. The power of evil in the world, symbolized as the gates of hell (Matt. 16:18), has resisted and often seduced the Church. True believers, in their lives and gatherings, have managed to persevere and overcome nevertheless.

The Church is being tested by God as to its faithfulness and fruitful-ness. It must face and overcome obstacles by the power of God. If it were the will of God to have the path made smooth and opposition crushed in this life, He would have done it that way. Our defeats and failures are instructive to us. The amazing thing is that the Church has survived and spread its influence throughout the world despite many setbacks.

The most difficult part of the Church’s witness has been to explain that much in the world that bears the name Christian is not representative of Christ. Christendom has often contradicted His character and Word. The distinction between true believers and nominal believers, between churches true to Christ and those which are counterfeits, has been almost impossible for the world to understand.

The Church began on the Jewish feast day of Pentecost (Acts 2). It was formed by the initial act of the Holy Spirit in baptizing believers into the Body of Christ (1 Cor. 12:13). Both Jew and Gentile were united for the first time into one body (Eph. 2:11-16). Christ the cornerstone, rejected by Israel, became the head of the corner (Matt. 21:42; 1 Pet. 2:7-9). The Church was a mystery unknown throughout Old Testament times (Eph. 3:3-6), but revealed after the resurrection of Christ. Its initial history is found in the Acts and the remainder of the New Testament. In this space we can only briefly summarize broad developments in history, but these can be classified under certain fairly distinct periods.

1. Apostolic Church (33-100 A.D.)

The dramatic formation of the Church at Jerusalem began with Peter’s evangelistic message when over 3,000 people, entirely Jews, came to bow the knee to Christ (Acts 2). Thousands more followed. There was a rapid spread of the Gospel message. The Biblical emphasis changed from the Law of Moses to the good news about Jesus and the resurrection (Acts 8:4). It was said that Christians were turning the world upside down (Acts 17:6). The apostles preached first to the Jews, then to the Gentiles (Rom. 1:16; 2:9). There was an attempt by some to mingle elements of Judaism with the Christian faith, such as requiring circumcision and other ritual observances (Acts 15:1-29; Gal. 2:11-3:12). The idea that there had been a dramatic change from the era of the Law, so that Gentiles were now on a par with Jews, was astonishing even to the Apostle Peter. This necessitated a special revelation (Acts 10:9-16,45-48). Growing resistance by the Jewish community caused the Apostle Paul to turn from concentrating his message on the Jews toward chiefly reaching the Gentiles (Acts 13:42; 18:6).

The Apostles carried the Gospel to remote eastern areas as well as Europe. Tradition tells us that Thomas went to India. The first Christians were out to reach the world for Christ. Paul expressed a fear of grievous wolves, meaning false teachers, entering among the flock (Acts 20:29, Jude). Doctrinal division arose from within. Peter and Paul were executed at Rome between 60-70 A.D. John was exiled to the island of Patmos. It is said that all of the apostles except John died violently. Yet the Church grew, penetrating even into Caesar’s household (Phil. 4:22). This initial age corresponds in some ways to the Church of Ephesus in Revelation 2:1-7.

2. Persecuted Church (101-312 A.D.)

Believers suffered opposition and persecution during the first century, both from Rome, under Emperor Nero, and from antagonistic Jewish religious leaders, such as Saul of Tarsus. This was only the beginning of a larger scale onslaught of persecutions during the next 200 years. From the time of the Roman Emperor Trajan, at the beginning of the Second Century, to the end of the term of Diocletian in 305 A.D., there were ferocious attacks on Christians with only a few years of intermittent relief. Believers were crucified, thrown to wild beasts, burned alive, tortured and hounded to an unbelievable degree. The martyrdom of Polycarp, a church leader who was a disciple of the Apostle John, took place at Smyrna, now a part of modern Turkey, in about 155. This parallels with the message to the church at Smyrna (Rev. 2:8-11), the suffering church, which also mentions 10 days of tribulation. These days represent the 10 major persecutions, beginning with Nero and Domitian in the First Century, and then including eight more in the next two centuries.

At the same time the church was increasing vigorously, spreading throughout Europe to Britain, and extending through North Africa and other parts of the known world. The verdict of one leader was correct, “The blood of the martyrs is the seed of the church.” Satanic efforts to destroy the believers only made them flourish. Another great feature of this period was the coming together of the various books of the New Testament. The four gospels had been collected and were circulating by 150 A.D. The entire body of the New Testament was agreed upon and fixed in place by 170 A.D., except for the final agreement on 2 Peter. Forgeries were rejected by the church. Other books were considered helpful but not inspired. There are no lost books of the Bible. The believers had accepted those books which were confirmed as being inspired, by reason both of their character and their authors, long before any Council made a final pronouncement. A developing trend at this time also was the rise of the idea of ruling bishops in each church. This was taught by Ignatius, an elder at Antioch. All was not ideal however. Clericalism (separation of believers into clergy and laity) grew strongly. Various heresies about the person of Christ were confronted. A movement called Docetism, which denied the reality of the Lord’s incarnation or of God becoming man, was declared a heresy.

3. Compromised Church (313-600 A.D.)

The beginning of this era was dramatic. On the eve of a great battle near Rome, Constantine saw a vision of a cross in the sky, with the words, “In this sign, conquer.” His army marked their shields with a monogram of Christ and defeated a powerful opponent. He was convinced that the God of the Christians had given him victory and had confirmed his rule as Emperor of Rome. The State ceased to persecute and began to protect the church. All subsequent emperors, except one, professed, at least nominally, to be Christians. An army of pagans entered the church. Pagan temples were converted to Christian meeting places. Soldiers were baptized as groups. Substantially, the church had married the state, and thus the world.

The church of Pergamos, meaning much married, symbolized this period (Rev. 2:12-17). This church had both the doctrine of the Nicolaitans (meaning conquerors of the people, or laity), as well as the influence of Balaam, the hireling prophet (Jude 11; Num. 22,23,24; 31:8). Evidence of any sect of Nicolaitans, supposedly connected with a man named Nicholas, practicing immorality, has been inconclusive.

The now compromised church was joined to the state. The Emperor presided over the first great Council of the church at Nicaea in 325 A.D. The Bishop of Rome was accorded a preeminent place over the leaders of centers like Alexandria, Jerusalem and Antioch. The idea that the Bishop of Rome was supreme over all bishops was developed. It was taught that not only was Peter the first Pope, but that he transferred the power of supreme leader to all subsequent bishops of Rome, and that Rome would remain supreme forever. The division of clergy and laity (clericalism) became standardized. Clergy were now a special priesthood. Other ecclesiastical changes followed: The worship of dead saints (394), the veneration of Mary (431), priests dressing differently from laity (500), the doctrine of purgatory (593), the mass said in Latin in Western countries (600) and prayers said to Mary (600) all were decreed by a church, backed by the power of the state. With all this there was also a decline in spirituality and a departure from the stated patterns of the Bible.

The major outcome of the Council of Nicaea was to stand against the doctrine of Arius that believed the Son of God was a created being, not the eternal God in essence. Succeeding Councils at Constantinople (then capital of the eastern empire and the eastern church), Ephesus and Chalcedon ruled against heresies which affected the doctrine of the Trinity and the divine and human natures of Christ. Augustine (351-431) became a most prominent leader, and his writings continue to influence the church even today. Missionaries went to Russia, China and other remote places, bearing the message of faith. These positive events were outweighed by a tragic turn in the wrong direction. The favored church was less spiritual, less true to God, than the persecuted church.

4. The Paganized Church (601-1516 A.D.)

To be pagan is to act as the heathen, accompanied by a life of pleasure, materialism, corruption and immorality. During this sad period of church history, Christendom pursued a downward course toward apostasy. The combination of the power of so-called Christian rulers, with the ecclesiastical authority of the Roman Papacy violated the principles of the Bible. For a time, the eastern church, from Mesopotamia to Asia in its Syrian orthodox form, resisted the tide.

This time is called the Middle Ages. During the 10th and 11th Centuries it was called The Dark Ages, because of ignorance, superstition and corruption. It is evident that God permitted the gradual removal of the Christian church in its visible form from the Middle East. The force used was Islam, founded by Mohammed (570-632) with his visions and claim to be God’s final prophet. By military conquest, Muslims seized all the Bible lands, Spain, North Africa, the Indian subcontinent, and southeastern Europe, before being stopped at Vienna. It seemed that all of this was divine punishment for the idolatry, empty ceremonialism and disgraceful conduct occurring in the centers of organized Christian power. Constantinople, capital of the eastern empire, fell to Muslims in 1453. The misguided efforts to free the Holy Land by military power, called the Crusades (1096-1244), left only hatred in its wake, along with a miserable moral example by those who wore the cross on their armor.

Efforts to reunite Europe as a Christian political power began under Emperor Charlemagne (767-814). His Kingdom was called the Holy Roman Empire. It was certainly not holy. It was more German than Roman. The official religious centers remained largely corrupt. The Papacy went into a period of decline. Leaders true to Christ stood against the tide and asserted the authority of the Bible in matters of the faith against the authority of the largely apostate church. John Wycliffe in England (1324-1384) translated the Bible into English for his people and criticized the established church for not following its precepts. After he died, official church leaders dug up his bones and burned them. John Huss in Bohemia (1369-1414) preached against the corruption of the church and was burned at the stake. Savonarola in Italy and many others were martyred for standing against the tide. The climax of corruption was the widespread sale of indulgences by the church in order to build St. Peter’s church in Rome. These indulgences claimed to give complete remission of all sins in return for money. This so disgusted Martin Luther, an Augustinian Catholic monk, that he protested in writing against his own church. He nailed his criticisms in the form of 95 Theses on the door of the church at Wittenberg, Germany, in 1517. It was the start of the Reformation and the end of the prior era. This period is generally symbolized by the fourth church in Revelation 2:18-29, that of Thyatira. It was a church that tolerated wrong doctrine and immorality, while at the same time maintaining a great display of pomp and religiosity.

5. Reformation Church (1517-1700)

The very existence of corrupt conditions in the official church inspired spiritually enlightened men to seek reform. The formal beginning was Luther’s protests, but he did not intend it to lead to a split from Rome by many churches in Germany, Switzerland and elsewhere. Henceforth these reformed churches would be called Protestant churches, although they, in time, forgot what they were protesting. The movement was an imperfect attempt to return to Biblical Christianity. It was effective in clarifying the message of salvation and the authority of the Bible over church tradition.

There were three basic principles established in this reformation. First, it started with the question, “What must I do to be saved?” The answer was that justification before God is by faith in the finished work of Christ, not works of any kind. The second question was, “What is the final authority in matters of the Christian faith?” The answer is that it is the Bible alone, God’s Word. This authority was not to be shared in combination with tradition or church pronouncements so that the Bible ended up in a secondary position. The third question to be answered was, “Who will lead God’s people?” There should be no special priesthood that man sets up, with authority over the private conscience of the individual believer, particularly one that bypasses Scripture. Humanly ordained priests are not lords over God’s heritage (1 Pet. 5:3). The Reformers saw that the Roman Catholic Church was not acting in accord with the New Testament in most of its doctrine, morals, or leadership.

There were several leading figures in the Reformation. In addition to Luther in Germany (1483-1546), there was Huldreich Zwingli (1484-1531) and John Calvin (1509-1564), who both ministered in Switzerland. They confronted the errors of the Catholic Church with the Word of God. The Reformation did not utterly escape all unbiblical elements in Catholic theology. In varying degrees the Reformers did not see that government involvement in the church was wrong. The problems inherent in all clergy-laity distinction were not fully perceived. Infant baptism was continued and those who opposed it (Anabaptists and others) were persecuted. The idea that salvation was somehow secure by reason of one’s infant baptism in a church, even without spiritual evidence in a person’s life, was accepted. Religious persecution and killing those opposed to this church’s beliefs was continued by some Protestant leaders, just as it had been the practice of the Catholic Church.

The great stirring of the Reformation prodded the Catholic Church into its own reforms. Some of the worst evils of the Papacy were cleaned up. Its reliance on tradition rather than Scripture remained unaltered. At the same time, various state churches became the new religious instrument of the Protestant Reformers. Lutheranism in Germany and Scandinavia, Anglicanism in England, and the state controlled church in Geneva, Switzerland, controlled the lives of the believers. People could think of themselves as Christians because they were baptized into the state church. In time, people adopted the religion of their country as a national or ethnic custom, just as was practiced in the national Orthodox churches in the East.

This form of the Christian church inevitably had within itself the seeds of its own decline. The state churches became lifeless and often remain so today, thus in need of an awakening or revival. One aid for the revival that was to come was the invention by Gutenberg of movable type printing in 1462. The spread of printing presses would make possible a flood of Bibles into the hands of common people in the future. The decline in spiritual life of the Reformation churches is symbolized by the church at Sardis (Rev. 3:1-6). The church had a name that lived, but it became to a large extent dead. Members need to remember the Savior’s appeal, “Remember therefore what you have received and heard; and keep it and repent.”

6. Awakened Church (1701-1900)

Knowledge of correct doctrine (orthodoxy), when separated from the responsibility to practice what we know, tends to spawn spiritual deadness. This happened in Lutheranism in Germany, just as it had occurred in other Protestant churches. In Germany this decline gave rise to what was called Pietism, under the initial leadership of Philip Spener (1635-1705). Sincere believers were weary of priestly arrogance, intellectual emphasis, and lack of godly living among both ministers and members of congregations. Pietists emphasized repentance, heart attitudes, personal Bible study and involvement in spiritual work by all believers. This tended to irritate those in the established church who accused them of perfectionism.

Pietism had a powerful influence throughout the 18th Century, one that extended far beyond Germany. Zinzendorf (1700-1760) had a group of devout believers under his ministry for protection from persecution, at a small place called Herrnhut, meaning “The Lord’s Watch.” Their practice of 24-hour prayer chains day after day lasted for almost 200 years. Their devotion to Christ was exemplary. As they heard about the sad plight of slaves in the West Indies, they began to send missionaries to help. In time, this little group was sending missionaries throughout the world. They were the beginning of the modern missionary revival. Missionary evangelism was Zinzendorf’s great goal for the church.

In America, the famed preacher Johnathan Edwards (1703-1758) led an evangelical revival, starting at Northhampton, Massachusetts, in 1734. John Wesley and his brother Charles, together with George Whitefield, led great revivals throughout England and extending to America in the 18th Century. The Wesleys took the gospel out of church buildings and brought it to the open places and industrial areas. Itinerant preachers went everywhere. They demonstrated sacrificial discipleship and stood for social justice. Through their influence slavery was abolished, prison reform instituted, and the poor and needy were assisted.

Independent missionary societies sprang up in the English-speaking world to fill the need which church organizations had omitted. Names now famed in Christian history arose to sacrifice themselves for the conversion of the heathen. William Carey went to India, Adoniram Judson to Burma, Hudson Taylor to China, and David Livingstone to Africa. Their labors were heroic and paved the way for thousands who followed. Churches were planted where none existed before. This evangelical missionary effort was entirely different from the coercive work of the Catholic priests, following Spanish soldiers, among the Indians of Central and South America, Mexico, and the California coast. The evangelicals brought the true gospel, without coercion. Believers multiplied.

Bible societies arose to translate the Scriptures into many languages and to print copies by the hundreds of millions for free distribution. Wherever the Bible was translated and distributed, Christian churches came into being. There was a rediscovery of many precious truths in God’s Word. Prominent among them was teaching the expectancy for the Lord’s return in the form of the Rapture of believers to meet the Lord in the air (1 Thess. 4:17). The early church looked for the Lord’s return at any time. The church of this period had that outlook too. It was a part of their lives and preaching. The joy of gathering in the Lord’s Name alone, of observing the Lord’s Supper in a simple way with many believers participating, was revived by those who came to be known simply as the Brethren, whose origins began in Plymouth, England, and then reached throughout the world.

This period corresponds well to the sixth Asian church called Philadelphia (brotherly love), mentioned in Revelation 3:7-13, which hears no criticism from her Lord. It had an open door and used it in preaching the gospel. The cry, “I am coming quickly,” uttered by the Lord Jesus, was quite real to them.

7. Present Church (1901 To Date)

The seed of evil for this period, unfortunately, was planted in the previous century by unbelieving German theologians in the established church. It was academic criticism of the Bible which shook the faith of seminary students and intellectuals first, then the common people, as it spread. It was called Higher Criticism or German rationalism or Modernism. It presumed to be able to question the authorship of most Bible books and declare that they were false. It carped about apparent contradictions. It denied the miraculous. It wondered who in fact was the real historical Jesus, compared with the Jesus taught in the Bible. Everything was redefined while keeping the same terminology. It was deceptive, poisonous, and deadly.

The progress of these ideas steadily penetrated most of the Protestant mainline denominations, until those who were persuaded dominated the official church leadership and seminaries. These churches became known as liberal or modernist, although they professed to be moderate. These liberal churches attacked the groups which were conservative by attaching to them the label “fundamentalist,” meaning extremists. Originally believers created this term, because they held to Biblical fundamentals. It was actually a conflict between the believers and the skeptical. Confusion was further compounded by new labels such as “neo-orthodox” (which was not orthodox), “neo-evangelical (which was not entirely evangelical), and “ecumenical,” meaning cooperation and consolidation of church organizations under one official umbrella organization. Christ’s call for unity among His people was interpreted to necessitate organizational unity among the denominational structures. There was a steady departure of many believers from such liberal-dominated church groups. There was a massive growth in general church membership until over one and a half billion souls claimed to be nominal Christians by the mid 1980’s. About 300 million of these were in evangelical groups, but not all of these could be claimed as true followers of the Lord. There was a sharp increase in the number of independent, autonomous assemblies or churches answerable to Christ alone and to the Bible for authority. More decisions for Christ were being made than at any other time in history. Billy Graham became the mass evangelist of the world in meetings attracting hundreds of thousands of people. Radio and television added to this major thrust. At the same time it was true that there was much superficiality of life, corruption, and lack of sincere commitment among these professing masses. Numbers of missionaries on the mission field began to decline. Materialism and affluence gnawed at the vitals of the church.

Starting at the beginning of this century, in Topeka, Kansas, and later in Los Angeles, California, there was the beginning of what has been called the modern tongues movement. This became the Pentecostal-Charismatic movement which has a wide influence. Not only were churches formed to champion these ideas, but there was penetration of these principles into virtually all other churches. There was emphasis on miracles, healings, signs and wonders as the means by which their ministry seemed to be authenticated by God. They divided Christians into two groups, those which were Spirit-filled (meaning those with their doctrines), and those which were not. This caused frequent splits in churches. Many believers of obvious sincerity were a part of this movement. They had a zeal for God, much as was the case with Montanists of the early church period who held many of the same ideas. At the same time, there was evident counterfeit in some claims made when they were exposed to public examination. The group had its greatest appeal to those who were (1) dismayed by the lack of spiritual life in their own churches or (2) had a poor foundation in the knowledge of the Word.

Toward the latter years of this period, it became more evident that the church was in a condition of being lukewarm in its commitment to Christ, infected with a poisonous materialism and proudly self-satisfied. This paralleled the seventh and final church in Revelation 3:14-22, the one at Laodicea. There were still many martyrs for Christ. Believers stood faithful to Christ under intense persecution from Communism in China, the Soviet Union, and elsewhere.

Conclusion And Application

In these last days, there has been a great burst of effort to reach the millions still without a knowledge of the Lord Jesus and the Gospel. In this sense, the gates of hell have not prevailed against the Church. It has survived despite the errors of fallible leaders and their various groups. Genuine believers are moving steadily toward their destination to rule and reign with Christ forever (Rev. 20:6; 22:5). After the Rapture, the church will celebrate in heaven at the Marriage Supper of the Lamb (Rev. 19:6-9).

The destination of the official, organized church, which might be called Christendom, is another matter. Like Israel of old, it will continue to decline into apostasy (1 Tim. 4:1,2; Matt. 13:33) due to false teaching (2 Pet. 2:1-3). In its combined entirety it is called Babylon (confusion), and it will face the judgment of God as it is destroyed (Rev. 17:1-6; 18:1-4). The setting aside of the apostate or false church will be the occasion of the national restoration of Israel (Rom. 11:11-26), just as Israel forfeited its blessings to the Gentiles by its own apostasy 2000 years before. In all of these matters we marvel at the mystery of God’s will, as He fulfills His eternal purposes in Christ.

Lesson 3 The History Of The Church

Read Revelation chapters 2 and 3 along with the lesson notes before answering the following questions.

1. List two outstanding features of the Apostolic Church and one dangerous development.

2. Why did the Persecuted Church prosper?

3. What was the result of Constantine’s political favoritism toward the Church? Are churches helped in any way by governments being involved with their day-to-day workings?

4. List two major trends in the Paganized Church that undermined its spirituality.

5. List briefly the three major principles of the Reformation Church.

6. List two principles which contributed to the revival of the Awakened Church.

7. List two major negative trends in the Present Church and two positive developments.

8. What are some of the dangers which you have seen from looking at church history? How can we avoid these same problems and mistakes in our local church today?

9. Opinion: What most impressed you in this lesson?