How things started to unravel in the Early Church…

It may seem very presumptuous of me to write about such a theme, but I believe this is the hour when the global church of Jesus Christ is being called back to her “roots” (i.e. her "Apostolic Foundations"). To support this impression, I offer the following statistic from David Barrett, of the World Christian Encyclopedia. Barrett estimates that there are around 112 million “churchless Christians” worldwide – about 5 percent of all adherents. He projects that this number will double by 2025. (The “Out-of-Church” Christians by A. Strom 2004)

These many millions of Bible-believing, born again Christians, the vast majority of the them mature believers, have just simply stopped going to church and are seeking – waiting – for the return to a more Biblical and authentic expression of church.   

I do not suggest to label the entire Early Church heretical at all, but I believe that the New Testament (NT) itself supplies us with ample evidence regarding where and how the post-Apostolic church would “unravel” and start to veer off course… ever so slightly at first, but as a stream that has flooded its bank, to greater and greater degrees later on.

Some of the early warning signs are as follows:

Notice the despondency (cynicism?) from Paul in his last letter, shortly before his death in Rome:

“You are aware of the fact that all who are in Asia turned away from me.” ( 2 Tim 1:15 NASB)
“Only Luke is with me… At my first defense no one supported me, but all deserted me.” (2 Tim 4:11,16)

John wrote some years later with similar trials:

“Diotrephes, who likes to put himself first, does not acknowledge my authority.” (3 John 9)
The “false teachings” of Balaam, the Nicloations, and Jezebel which crept into the churches of Pergamum and Thyatira  (Rev 2)

Other signs we see from the NT are the warnings of (at least) four major “adversaries” sent out to destroy the apostolic Church as it developed in those early years: false apostles, false prophets, false teachers, and false brethren. (Please notice that the church was built upon the foundation of the “apostles and prophets” Eph 2:20 and that – in the church – there are “First apostles, second prophets, and third teachers…” 1 Cor 12:28. Interesting, isn’t it, to notice what Satan chose to copy and counterfeit!)

Let’s now look at these “pretenders” one at a time.

1. False Apostles.
2 Cor 11: 13-15 For such men are false apostles, deceitful workmen, disguising themselves as apostles of Christ. And no wonder, for even Satan disguises himself as an angel of light. Therefore it is not surprising if his servants also disguise themselves as servants of righteousness.

2. False Prophets.
Mt. 24:11 Many false prophets will arise, and will mislead many.
1 Jo 4: 1-2 Beloved, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits to see whether they are of God; for many false prophets have gone out into the world.

3. False Teachers.
2 Pe. 2: 1-3 There will be false teachers among you, who will secretly bring in destructive heresies, even denying the Master who bought them, bringing upon themselves swift destruction. Many will follow their sensuality…
2Ti 4:3 For the time is coming when people will not endure sound teaching, but having itching ears they will accumulate for themselves teachers to suit their own likings.

4. False Brethren.
Gal 2: 4-5 But because of false brethren secretly brought in, who slipped in to spy out our freedom which we have in Christ Jesus, that they might bring us into bondage.
2 Cor 11:26 I have been constantly on the move. I have been in danger from rivers, in danger from bandits… and in danger from false brethren.

Is that not an exhaustive list of opponents dedicated to the destruction of the church of Jesus Christ?

Is it any wonder, then, that by the turn of the century (A.D. 100 ), and not coincidentally after the death of all the “original” disciples and apostles of Christ, that the apostolic church was sent adrift from its moorings and floated out to sea. I think we can – for the sake of discussion and brevity – breakdown the "unravelling" into three areas: Authority, Lifestyle (Immorality), and Gifts of the Holy Spirit

1. Authority
Diotrephes, who we saw earlier, was a thorn in John’s side and would not endorse John’s ministry, receive his disciples or acknowledge his authority (3 John). This is the first clear NT example of someone in a recognised leadership role (ie. an elder) abusing his position and hoarding power for himself. Diotrephes suffered from the age old temptation of wanting to be #1. He was, apparently, weary of having to include the other elders and maybe wanted to “draw away the disciples” after himself, like some of the Ephesian elders. (Acts 20:30)

Unfortunately this dilemma did not stop with Diotrephes or the Ephesian elders, as history records. Within just a few years of the death of the Apostle John, Ignatius (a devoted friend and disciple of John), for reasons no man can be sure of, instituted a clear cut hierarchy for the church that has stood – in one form or another – until today: Bishop, Council of Elders, and Deacons.

Believe it or not, Ignatius declared that the Bishop was equal to God! “I exhort you to be careful to do all things in the unity of God, since the Bishop sits in the place of God…” (St. Ignatius’ Epistle to the Ephesians 6:1). Ignatius coined the famous expression: “Where the Bishop is, there is the Church”. He himself should know, I guess, being the Bishop of Antioch!

2. Lifestyle (Immorality)
Another aspect that infiltrated the early church is false teaching centered on immorality and compromise. Read the first 3 chapters of the book of Revelation and you will see what I mean! The “false teachings” of Balaam, the Nicloations, and Jezebel (Rev 2) together, evidently, promoted a reckless relationship with the “other gods” in the city (eating food sacrificed to idols, etc.) and encouraged sexual self-indulgence. Many were caught in their snares!

Paul, by the Spirit, saw it coming and warned Timothy “But mark this: There will be terrible times in the last days. For men will be lovers of self, lovers of money, proud … lovers of pleasure rather than lovers of God, holding the form of religion but denying the power of it. Avoid such people!” (2 Tim 3:1-5)

Church we need revival NOW! We need to cleanse ourselves from the poison of compromise and immorality, both individually and corporately! A brother from south India warned us over forty years ago in this regard:

“America has a leading part in the Christian world, and sends out many missionaries, but they can never rise above the spiritual level of their home church. Unless you have true revival here, we in other lands are going to be hit hard if you keep sending out missionaries to us. Your shallowness will reflect on us.” (Joshua Daniel, Taken from Heart-Cry for Revival)

3. Gifts of the Spirit
Already in Thessalonica (A.D. 50), Paul had to exhort the infant church not to quench the Spirit and not to despise prophetic utterances. In the “spiritual volcano” of Corinth, Paul later had to urge the flock to “desire earnestly to prophesy and do not forbid speaking in tongues” (A.D. 55). Today, as then, it seems as if we struggle for the full “turning loose” of the Holy Spirit!

I often ask myself: Did Paul ever suspect that less than 100 years after his death, that not only speaking in tongues, but also prophesying and other spontaneous revelations, would be completely silenced by the church Fathers?

In the absorbing book by Edwin Hatch, The Influence of Greek Ideas on Christianity, we are given some clues to the failure of the post-Apostolic church in handling the gifts of the Holy Spirit:

“In the course of the second century, this original spontaneity of utterance [tongues, prophecy, revelation, etc.] died almost entirely away. It may almost be said to have died a violent death. The dominant parties in the Church set their faces against it. In the place of prophesying came preaching. We consequently find that with the growth of organization there grew up also… the gradual restriction of the liberty to address the community to the official class.” (emphasis mine)

This e-mail is simply a short overview of the post-Apostolic times to get us thinking how we can recover, reclaim and recapture what was lost, stolen or, through our sin, dropped and broken!

Yours for the least in the Kingdom,

Jeff Gilbertson

Leave a Reply