What Happened to the Church Jesus Built - Pt. 4

by Tommy Thornhill

The last article closed with the church beginning its drift into apostasy when a distinction was made in the leadership, where one elder in the local congregation was elevated above the others, and became the bishop, presiding over the other elders. He was given superior status. This simple change was just the beginning of many changes that would take place in the years to come.  After this seemingly small change in the organization of the church it was inevitable that much more was to come. The prophet Jeremiah had pointed out centuries before that his people were headed into apostasy because they had forsaken the fountain of living waters (the word of God) for the broken cisterns (ideas, opinions) of men that hold no water Jer.2:12-13. This was what was now happening to the Lord’s church.  Once men abandon the word of God in one area, they have opened the door for other innovations, as church history shows. Even though a change had taken place in the eldership, the basics of Christianity were still being taught, and the influence of the gospel being felt in surrounding communities. Churches were being established all over the countryside. So, a denominational concept began to develop, a metropolitan form of organization. Believing the church, with an enlarged organization, could function more smoothly and accomplish more, several congregations would unite together, under the umbrella of the larger, more dominant church in the area. This union then prompted the elders in the larger city congregations to send some of their elders to the smaller rural churches, to help them care for their spiritual affairs. The elders of the larger church, with its presiding bishop, then exercised authority over the other, smaller congregations. Even though men may have thought this was a good idea, it was in direct conflict with 1.Pet.5:2, “shepherd the flock of God, which is among you…” While the early Christians could read nothing in God’s word (the apostles’ doctrine,” aka the New Testament) about presiding bishops, or elders ruling over other congregations,   the members’ ignorance of God’s word, and/or their failure to heed it Heb.2:2-3 allowed prideful men to introduce these things into the church. Flaunting their exalted status, these men soon elevated themselves above the rest of the congregation and brought about what is known as a clergy-laity distinction. The clergy, as they were then called, became the ones who set the rules for what a congregation was to believe and practice. The church was now viewed as a religious institution, established to offer salvation and validate faith and worship, and to provide for the members all their spiritual and physical needs. The church was now operating the same way a secular government operates to maintain law and order and dispense physical needs for its citizens. Later, they would form conferences and associations to determine matters of faith and worship for all the churches. In later years, they would add theological schools and/or human institutions to supplement the church. None of these concepts came from God’s word. They were all formed from human reasoning, and would later replace the word of God as the authority to determine matters of faith, worship and work for the members.  What was fast developing WAS NOT (and still isn’t) THE WAY God intended His church to function. The metropolitan, institutional church concept, hatched by uninspired men, coveys the idea of an organization separate from the people who comprise it, rather than the church being composed of the saved in a given location. Salvation from sin came through “the obedience of faith” Rom.1:5 in the gospel of Christ Mk.16:16; Rom.6:3-5; Col.2:12-13. Salvation is not dispensed through the church, for the church is made up of those who are already saved Acts 2:47. As pointed out earlier, the church’s responsibility is to make known the gospel Eph.3:10-11, not to formulate it. To make the church of Christ into something it is not intended to be, is to dishonor the Father’s purpose for planning it, the Son’s fulfillment of His purpose in building it, the Holy Spirit’s revelation of the plan for its existence, and man’s submission to the plan. By respecting what the church is intended to be God will be glorified, not man Eph.3:21.   Christianity, while, by this time was corrupted by men, still flourished, and its influence continued to expand into the various provinces. Many of those converted wanted to bring with them some of the pagan practices and rituals of their previous religions into the church. Things unknown to the word of God. Wanting to include these things made it impossible for the church to maintain the simplicity of the original gospel, the purity of the worship and form of government God intended. People were forgetting that they (the church) had been called out of the world to be God’s “special people” 2.Cor.6:17-18. They lived in the world, but were not like the world and its practices Jn.15:19; 17:14-16.  But, when men were no longer committed to the word of God as their final authority 1.Pet.4:11; Col.3:17, the door was wide open to allow changes in doctrine and worship. Weak-minded people might make changes through ignorance, but the responsibility for these changes rested with the leadership (now the clergy class). So, a leadership who had lost respect for God’s word, along with a compliant, ignorant membership and a spirit of compromise, led the way into further apostasy in doctrine and worship. They wanted to make the church more acceptable to the world.  (We will notice some of these things in the next issue).