A Brief History of the Church

Now the Berean Jews were of more noble character than those in Thessalonica, for they received the message with great eagerness and examined the Scriptures every day to see if what Paul said was true. (Acts 17:11)

If a person starts questioning church teachings and practices, people say, “You need to submit to the pastor, who is the authority in the church.” Jim Jones, the founder and leader of the People’s Temple cult who led 900 followers to mass suicide, started out as a Baptist minister. I wonder if any of his followers challenged his beliefs when they first seemed a little “off,” but were told, “You need to submit to your pastor.”

  • Biblically, are pastors to be the CEO of a church, and are we to submit to them? If we are to submit to them, how and when? Is there ever a time when we ought not to submit to them? And how do we know if we resisting a false teacher, like resisting Jim Jones, or we are just being rebellious because we don’t want to submit?
While we were at the church, the church constitution was re-written. While we were discussing the constitution, the pastor stated that our form of church government was the only Biblical form of church government. That didn’t seem right, so I began to think about where our form of church government and traditions come from. Within this time, my son and began to study church history in our homeschool. We studied the books, The Story of Christianity by Michael Collins and Matthew A. Price; The 100 Most Important Events in Christian History by A. Kenneth Curtis, J. Stephen Lang, and Randy Petersen; and Our Father Abraham by Marvin R. Wilson. I had never studied church history before so I didn’t know much about it–just tidbits here and there. What I learned was eye-opening and heartbreaking. Here is a whirlwind history lesson of the church:

For centuries, our churches have been structured with pastors as the head of the church, with elders and deacons under him. The question is: “Is this Biblical?” and “Where did the Church structure we know originate?”

The word translated “church” in the New Testament means “called out ones.” God’s original called out ones were the Jews, and their “structure” was the Tabernacle and Temple. The Jews were commanded to travel to Jerusalem three times a year for three of the seven Feasts that God originated–Passover, Pentecost, and the Feast of Tabernacles. The “day of worship” during the week was the Sabbath when the people who rest, enjoy God, and enjoy their family. The Jews considered the Sabbath to be more holy than the High Feast days. In the Old Testament, the Levites were given cities, and they instructed the people in truth. (To study whether Christians should celebrate the Sabbath, read the Hebrew4Christian article, Christians and Shabbat, Lord of the Sabbath – Should Christians Keep the Sabbath, and others.)

It is thought that the synagogue originated during the Babylonian Exile, beginning in 586 B.C., when deprived of the Temple, Jews would meet from time to time to read the scriptures. Whatever the exact origin, it is during the first century C.E., particularly after the destruction of of the Second Temple by the Romans in 70 A.D. that the synagogue emerges as a well established institution and the center of the social and religious life of the people. The home, however, was considered more holy than the synagogue.

The first followers of Jesus were Jews. The “church” was born among the Jewish people in Jerusalem. The earliest member of the new church met regularly in the temple, where Gentiles were excluded.

Even while Jesus was alive on earth, some Jews believed He was the Messiah and some didn’t. Our Father Abraham said that during the First Jewish Revolt (AD 66-73) there was a great division between believing and nonbelieving Jews. The believing Jews fled Jerusalem because of Jesus’ prophecy about its destruction, and the other Jews resented that they didn’t help fight. The Second Jewish Revolt (AD 132-135) was led by Rabbi Bar Kokhba, whom many nonbelieving Jews thought was the Messiah. The believing Jews again didn’t fight against the Romans, not least because to fight under the leadership of Bar Kokhba would lend support to his claims of being Messiah. This further deepened the division between Jews.

Our Father Abraham says:

“Although a few Jewish Christians apparently still attended synagogue in Jerome’s day (AD 400), the parting of the way seems to have been largely finalized by around the middle of the second century. By the time of Justin Martyr (ca. AD 160) a new attitude prevailed in the Church, evidenced by its appropriating the title “Israel” for itself. Until this time the Church had defined itself more in terms of continuity with the Jewish people; that is, it was an extension of Israel. There was a growing awareness, however, that the Synagogue was firm in its stance that Jesus was not the Messiah of Israel, and that on this point the Synagogue was not going to change its mind. The realization of this impasse gradually drew the Church to define itself in terms of discontinuity with–indeed, as the replacement of–Israel. To this point not only had Jewish Christians considered themselves part of the national body of Israel, but so too had gentile believers. They saw themselves as grafted into Israel, as part of a believing remnant within Israel, not those who had usurped the place of Israel, not as a separate people independent of Israel. Therefore, as long as the Church had a reasonable balance of Jews and Gentiles in the same body, there was no tendency to take over the term Israel. But by Justin’s time that balance had been lost.

With more Gentiles and the severing of Jewish Roots, a large Hellenistic influence affected the church. You can see this influence in our Western churches when you study the difference between Hellenistic and Hebraic thought. (To read more about Israel and the church, click here.)

When Constantine became a Christian (in the 300′s), he made Christianity favorable and popular, and the church became wealthy. Large churches were built, designed according to the plan of pagan temples. Christian clergy were given special favors and privileges, and laws were made to stop rich men from becoming clerics to avoid paying taxes. With clerical power came abuses and violence. Many became church leaders not because they were godly or cared about following Christ, but because they wanted power and wealth. Ambrose of Milan instituted celibacy among priests in order to prevent religious dynasties. Also seeking relics, celebrating saints, confession to priests, penance, celibacy, monks and monasteries, and other such things (like hermits living their lives on pillars) crept in.

The protestant movement is one of the three major groupings (Catholicism, Orthodoxy, and Protestantism) within Christianity. It is a movement that began in central Europe in the early 16th century as a reaction against (protest) medieval Roman Catholic doctrines and practices. Martin Luther  was a German priest and professor of theology who initiated the Protestant Reformation. He strongly disputed the claim that freedom from God’s punishment of sin could be purchased with money. He confronted indulgence salesman Johann Tetzel with his Ninety-Five Theses in 1517. His refusal to retract all of his writings at the demand of Pope Leo X in 1520 and the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V at the Diet of Worms in 1521 resulted in his excommunication by the pope and condemnation as an outlaw by the emperor.

Luther taught that salvation is not earned by good deeds but received only as a free gift of God’s grace through faith in Jesus Christ as redeemer from sin. His theology challenged the authority of the pope of the Roman Catholic Church by teaching that the Bible is the only source of divinely revealed knowledge and opposed sacerdotalism by considering all baptized Christians to be a holy priesthood. Those who identify with Luther’s teachings are called Lutherans.

In the 16th century, the followers of Martin Luther established the evangelical churches of Germany and Scandinavia. Reformed churches in Switzerland and France were established by John Calvin and more radical reformers such as Huldrych Zwingli. Thomas Cranmer reformed the Church of England and later John Knox established a more radical Calvinist communion in the Church of Scotland.

Historians trace the earliest Baptist church back to 1609, in Amsterdam, with English Separatist John Smyth as its pastor. In accordance with his reading of the New Testament, he rejected baptism of infants and instituted baptism only of believing adults. Baptist practice spread to England, where the General Baptists considered Christ’s atonement to extend to all people, while the Particular Baptists believed that it extended only to the elect. In 1639, Roger Williams established the first Baptist congregation in the North American colonies. In the mid-18th century, the First Great Awakening increased Baptist growth in both New England and the South. The Second Great Awakening in the South in the early 19th century increased church membership, as did the preachers’ lessening of support for abolition and manumission of slavery, which had been part of the 18th-century teachings.

In a study of the Principles of Priesthood, Bob Deffinbaugh of Bible.org wrote the following.

Principle 2: The Lord Jesus Christ has instituted a new priestly order, not of a few select individuals, but of all those who are born again, who are united by faith with His priesthood.

Just as Aaron, Israel’s first high priest, was the top ranking priest of a whole order, so Jesus Christ is the head of a New Testament order of priests. The priesthood of the Old Testament was called the Aaronic priesthood because all the priests were the offspring of Aaron, they were members of his family. The priesthood of the New Testament is composed of all who are “in Christ.” This is implied in the Book of Hebrews. In chapter 8 we read of a “better ministry.” In chapter 9 we are told of one of the results of the high priestly ministry of Christ:

For if the blood of goats and bulls and ashes of a heifer sprinkling those who have been defiled, sanctify for the cleansing of the flesh, how much more will the blood of Christ, who through the eternal Spirit offered Himself without blemish to God, cleanse your conscience from dead works to serve the living God? (Heb. 9:13-14).

The service which is to result from the cleansing accomplished by our Great High Priest is a priestly service. Thus, in chapter 10, the application of Christ’s work in the believer’s actions is described in the priestly vocabulary of the Old Testament priesthood:

… since we have a great priest over the house of God, let us draw near with a sincere heart in full assurance of faith, having our hearts sprinkled clean from an evil conscience and our bodies washed with pure water. Let us hold fast the confession of our hope without wavering, for He who promised is faithful; and let us consider how to stimulate one another to love and good deeds, not forsaking our own assembling together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another; and all the more, as you see the day drawing near (Heb. 10:21-25).

The Old Testament priests were those who drew near, and were those who had to be washed in order to carry out their priestly duties. This terminology is now applied to all who are in Christ, because all who are in Christ are priests. This is clearly taught elsewhere in the New Testament. Our Lord taught that the new order which He would bring into existence was one in which a religious hierarchy would not and could not exist. There was to be no laity and clergy distinction. No men were to be put on a higher spiritual level than others:

“But do not be called Rabbi; for One is your Teacher, and you are all brothers. And do not call anyone on earth your father; for One is your Father, He who is in heaven. And do not be called leaders; for One is your Leader, that is, Christ. But the greatest among you shall be your servant. And whoever exalts himself shall be humbled; and whoever humbles himself shall be exalted” (Matt. 23:8-12).

Thus, in the New Testament, all believers are said to be the priesthood of the New Covenant:

You also, as living stones, are being built up as a spiritual house for a holy priesthood, to offer up spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ. … But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for God’s own possession, that you may proclaim the excellencies of Him who has called you out of darkness into His marvelous light (1 Pet. 2:5, 9).

And He has made us to be a kingdom, priests to His God and Father; to Him be the glory and the dominion forever and ever. Amen (Rev. 1:6).

Often in the New Testament we find the ministry of the New Testament saint couched in the sacrificial language of the Old Testament because we who are in Christ are His priests (cf. Rom. 12:1; Phil. 1:18; Heb. 13:9-17).

The cross of Jesus Christ marks the greatest dividing line of all history. There may be other lines drawn in the history of God’s dealings with men, but none matches this one in its significance. This line has not always been viewed as clearly as it should have been, however. In the history of the church, the line has had to be redrawn, or at least rediscovered. The Reformation, brought about by a former Roman Catholic monk, Martin Luther, was one such redrawing of the line. As Christ drew the line between the traditions of Judaism and the teachings of the Old Testament, so Luther drew the line between the authority of the church and the authority of the Bible. As Christ drew the line between a salvation of works and that of faith in His shed blood, so Luther reiterated that men were saved by faith in Christ alone, and not by their works.

Unfortunately, the Reformation did not redraw the line as fully as it should have. Many matters of ecclesiology, that is, matters pertaining to the forms and functions of the church, were left virtually unchallenged. Thus, for example, the distinction between laity and clergy was maintained. In most Catholic and Protestant churches, there is either a formal or an informal priesthood, an order of those who somehow mediate between God and men. Thus, much of the Aaronic Priesthood, which we find defined and described in the Book of Leviticus, is simply carried over into the New Testament church, with only superficial changes or alterations. Such practice is ignorant of (or worse yet, disobedient to) the fact that with Christ came a New Covenant, as well as a new priesthood, and that this priesthood includes every true believer, not a select few.

Why is it that the clear teaching of the Bible has not been followed, as it pertains to the new priestly order or the New Testament? Why has the doctrine of the “priesthood of all believers” been set aside, both doctrinally and practically, so that an elite priestly class still performs the religious rituals for the laity? I think the reason can be seen in the Old Testament text. When Moses came down from Mt. Sinai, and the people partially perceived the holiness of God, they said to Moses, “Speak to us yourself and we will listen; but let not God speak to us, lest we die” (Exod. 20:19).

Before the death of Nadab and Abihu (as seen above) and after it as well, I suspect, the people were glad to let someone else get close to God. They wished to play it safe by keeping their distance. I think that is one of the principle reasons why Christians today want to have a small priestly class, and clergy, as it were, who will represent them before God, and who will relieve them of the responsibility of getting to close to God, and having to pay the higher price of purity, discipline, and devotion which this entails.

Moses exemplifies the change which God wants to see in all of us. When God first called Moses, as recorded in the early chapters of the Book of Exodus, Moses kept retreating from God and drawing back from the position to which God has called him. He wanted God to send someone else, and only very reluctantly went after God’s anger was evident, and when Aaron was sent along with him.

The great change in Moses occurs after the “fall of Israel” in Exodus 32, when the people sinned by their worship of the golden calf. From here on, we have the sense of Moses pressing toward God—almost dangerously so. He is not content with God’s promise to be personally present with him alone. He wants God’s promise to be present with His people. Even beyond this Moses pressed God to reveal His glory to him, in a way that definitely was life-threatening (cf. Exod. 33:17–34:35).

The man who drew back from God now pressed upon Him. How can we explain this change? Two things explain the change, and they are at the very heart of the Book of Leviticus: loving God and loving men. Moses loved God so much that he wanted to be near Him, even to see His undiminished glory, if possible. He loved the Israelites so much that he would not settle only for God’s promise of His personal presence and blessing, but for nothing less than His presence with His people. When we love God and men we wish to draw near to God, not to draw away from Him. The reason why many of us want an elite priesthood, a clergy, is that we don’t sufficiently love God or our fellow men. Let us learn from Moses and from other godly saints to “draw near.”

Next, I will write “What is the Church?”

What do you think?

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