What Happened to the Church Jesus Built - Pt. 3
by Tommy Thornhill

The last issue closed with the thought that the church had been furnished with all the gifts necessary to help the saints of God to “come to the unity of the faith…to the perfect man (maturity)” Eph.4:13. But what happened afterward?  A sinful world, for the first time in history, was now able to hear the wonderful gospel (good news) message of salvation freely offered to all mankind. But, instead of rejoicing over the good news they were hearing, most people, deluded by the alluring nature of sin, didn’t want the gospel. They preferred to follow the course of the world, fulfilling the desires of the flesh.

So, rejecting the message, they reacted with bitter hatred and enmity toward the messengers bearing the good news. The world showed its contempt for the church, and set out to destroy it by persecuting its members. This same ungodly, unthankful, hateful attitude of the world continues unabated even to this very day against the people of God. The members of the Lord’s church experienced their first persecutions at the hands of the unbelieving Jews, but their persecution was soon followed by persecution from the Gentiles. Instead of destroying the church, persecution caused the church to grow and prosper. The suffering and bloodshed of the martyrs by the hand of their enemies became the seed of the church. The more severe the persecution against them, the more willing the Christians were to die for their faith in Jesus, the Son of God. To a great extent, the persecutions served to keep the church pure. For, if confessing one’s faith in Jesus Christ meant suffering, then only those fully committed to Christ would be willing to obey the gospel. 

While the apostles lived they were able to keep the church relatively pure from the ideas and innovations of men. They knew the saints were imperfect people, susceptible to the devil’s wiles 2.Cor.2:11; Eph.4:27. While alive they continually exhorted Christians to be steadfast in faith and continually warned them of impending dangers. They knew the apostasy was coming, and it would come from the leadership Acts 20:28-32; 2.Pet.2:1-2; 2.Thes.2:2-11; 1.Tim.4:1-4; 2.Tim.4:2-4.

Yet, in spite of all that God had provided, the human side (the imperfect part) of the church still drifted into apostasy. Human philosophy and paganism crept into the church, making it difficult for the church to remain separate from the world. As Christianity flourished, some of those converted tried to bring with them some of the pagan practices and rituals of their previous religions, things that were unknown to the early church. Wanting to include these things made it difficult for the church to maintain the simplicity of the gospel, its purity of worship and form of government God intended. The members’ ignorance and lack of respect for God’s word, the spirit of compromise and a prideful leadership led the way. Imperfect people felt they could improve on God’s plan and make the church more acceptable to the world. 

The departure started where the apostles said it would, in the leadership. God’s plan of leadership for the local church, was to have bishops, aka known as elders and pastors Phil.1:1. The office of the eldership always consisted of a plurality of men, all being equal in rank. No one elder/bishop was superior or elevated over the others. Each man appointed had all the necessary qualifications of 1.Tim.3:1-7; Tit.1:5-9, and all were capable of leadership. But, this did not mean all had the same abilities in exactly the same portion. As in life, some have more ability to rise to the top (like cream in milk before it is homogenized). If one is not careful, a person might begin to think of himself as more superior Phil.2:3-4, desiring to have the chief seats, so to speak.

The apostles had this tendency to seek the top spots, and Jesus had to correct their attitude Matt.18:1-4; 20:20-28, teaching them they were all servants, not masters. This same problem developed among the eldership.  Playing on the ignorance of the membership, and showing a lack of respect for God’s word, men in the leadership position, lifted up with pride, began to make a change in the eldership. They made a subtle change in the eldership, elevating one man above the others. They justified this by changing the meaning of words for those who led. They made a distinction where there was none. Originally, the terms “elder” and “bishop” referred to the same office and the same people. The words are used interchangeably in Acts 20:17, 28; Tit.1:5, 7. The difference in meaning dealt with qualification and work. The word, elder .(presbuteros) denoted one’s age and experience, while bishop (episkopos) denoted oversight and responsibility. A third word, sometimes used for this same office was pastor (poimen) Eph.4:11, meaning to lead and shepherd the flock. The verb form of pastor describes their work “feed,” Acts 20:28, “tend” 1.Pet.5:2. So we have the idea of men, like shepherds, leading and guiding the flock (congregation). As the church drifted into apostasy, the distinction was made in the eldership. One of the elders was elevated above the others, and became the bishop, presiding over the elders. He was given superior status. But, this simple change was just the beginning of the apostasy, opening the door to many later corruptions to come, in doctrine, worship and work as we shall see. The church was drifting because the members had failed to give heed to what they had been taught Heb.2:1-3; 3:12-13. (To be continued)