The Expository Files

A Brief History of the Early Church and the Following Apostasy

Mankind's religious history has always been one of constant changes. God has watched people of the world develop various religions on their own or many times take the one He has appointed and make all kinds of changes to it. God's earliest written Law given to His people Israel forbade such changes (Deuteronomy 4:2). And yet, in the 1400 years that followed, it seems as if apostasy was never far away. And always, the heroes of God's word are not the ones who sought to ignore or change the Law but the ones who tried to adhere to it.

We see much the same pattern in the years following the cross on down to our own time. Apostasy is never very far away, and still, the true heroes of faith are not the modernist or the manipulators of the Scriptures, but rather the ones who have enough faith, commitment and courage to hold the  Lord's teachings in reverent trust as they walk by faith.

From the Beginning of the Gospel
"Then those that received his word were baptized, and there were added that day about three thousand souls" (Acts 2:41). Ten days after Jesus' ascension into heaven, He sent the Holy Spirit to guide His apostles. The church thus had its beginning on the first Pentecost following His resurrection. Soon many of the hierarchy at Jerusalem began to oppose the new but rapidly growing church. Persecution grew ever more severe until a disciple by the name of Stephen was stoned to death. The floodgates were then opened forcing the Christians who lived at Jerusalem to flee their homes for their very lives. The record states that they were scattered everywhere and that they "went about preaching the word" (Acts 8:1-4).

We find the gospel reaching out further as it spread into the regions of the Samaritans and across the Jordan. It went north into Damascus, south into Ethiopia and west to the coast of the Mediterranean and cities like Caesarea. The cat was out of the bag, so to speak!

Evangelizing the World and Persecutions
"But we desire to hear from you what your views are; for concerning this sect, it is known to us that it is spoken against  everywhere" (Acts 28:22). Several things came together to have an influence on the nature of the first century church. Persecution from the Jews caused the gospel to spread among the gentiles. The apostles proved that they were of God by the miracles that they performed. They also showed their sincerity by being willing to die for the Lord proving to all that they really believed the gospel they preached. Seeing this, their converts from distant places were also willing to die for their faith even though they had never personally been with Jesus. Autonomous churches were established throughout the Roman empire, and soon the severest persecutions began to come from the Roman government itself.

Warnings About Apostasy
"I know that after my departure savage wolves will come in among you not sparing the flock; and from among your own selves men will arise,  speaking perverse things, to draw away disciples after them" (Acts 20:29,30). At the same time the church was facing such persecution from without, perhaps a far greater threat was growing from within; the old habit of men to tamper with the covenant God gives them. Now it was the New Covenant of God's Son that men began to make subtle changes upon. The Lord had given His instructions to the church through the apostles and prophets of the first century. By the time of John's death these instructions were finished and we are warned not to change them in any way (Galatians 1:6-9). By commands and examples, He revealed the plan of salvation; the modes of public worship; the organization of the local church as well as the various doctrines of faith about Christ. But it was not long until men arose, "speaking perverse things, to draw away disciples after them".

Warnings About Apostasy Fulfilled
"But the Spirit explicitly says that in later times some will fall away from the faith...who forbid marriage and advocate abstaining from foods, which God has created to be gratefully shared in by those who believe and know the truth" (I Timothy 4:1-3). Changes crept in slowly as small departures occurred; gradually became accepted over a generation or two; and then were used to justify even greater departures.

There began to be slight changes in the organization of the local church. One of the elders was made "the bishop". He was a "chief shepherd"; a position that you cannot read of in the covenant of Christ unless you are talking about Jesus Himself!  Then there was a binding together of several churches into a common organizational structure called a "diocese". Again, this is an organization foreign to the pages of the New Testament. By the end of the second century, these departures were accepted by most as the way to do things. Ultimately, after many struggles, much carnality and over strenuous objections, one of these men got himself promoted to "universal bishop" or pope. It had taken six centuries but it had always been the logical conclusion of those first steps away from the Covenant centuries before.

Apostasy's Many Forms
"A good tree cannot produce bad fruit, nor can a bad tree produce good fruit" (Matthew 7:18). Many, many further changes took place as men felt freer and freer to do with the Scriptures whatever they wished. Changes in baptism, music, the Lord's supper, status of "saints", status of Mary, use of religious images, writing of creeds, religious holidays, penance, purgatory and development of the clergy are all things unheard of in the Covenant God had made with His church. Now, who are the heroes of faith? They are the ones who have cast aside man-made religious trappings and have returned in simple, God-fearing faith to Jesus through His word. God expects no less than that.

By Jon W. Quinn
From Expository Files 10.10, October  2003