"I like your Jesus. I don't like the church."
"The church is just a huge institution. Why should I be interested in that?"
"I would be interested in your God if it weren't for all the hypocritical christians and their churches."
We who are the church of Jesus Christ need to be open and admit that the statements above are not without cause. An honest comparison of the church as it is described in the New Testament and the church of today - or for that matter of the last 1700 years - would show us that all is not as it should be.
Francis of Assisi is said to have stood by as the pope of his time showed him the magnificent, gold-covered churches and monuments of Rome. The pope proudly proclaimed, "No more can we say like Peter and John, 'Silver and gold have I none!'" Whereupon Francis spoke up and said, "Nor can we say, 'Rise, take up your bed and walk!'"
Where did the church go wrong? When and how did the change take place?
As in any discussion, widely divergent opinions exist. One thing is indisputable: the church did change, and it changed dramatically.
There are, however, a few points upon which practically every theologian and historian will agree. The following is a distillation of an article by theologian Jon Zens, spiced up with my own emphasis, analysis and research. Google: Jon Zens & "Four Tragic Shifts In The Visible Church 180-400 A. D."
These changes did not happen overnight or with one single act. It came about through many small changes, many small compromises. The period of greatest change stretched from 180 to 400 A.D. It began with congregations giving up their responsibility to serve each other and regulate their own behavior in favor of strong leadership (the bishops), who in return were supposed to protect them from false teaching.
Let's look at each of these shifts in more detail:
The overwhelming emphasis in the New Testament in regards to church life is that church is a family, a relationship-oriented group where each cares for the other and where hearts are connected. Paul calls it a body with many parts and members, each part necessary to the whole and where the whole is only healthy when each part contributes according to its purpose and gifting.
This early church was dynamic - full of power to dramatically improve the lives of the individual Christians as well as to transform society for good. This was because their focus was not on the health and growth of themselves as an organization, but on loving Jesus and letting his love move them to do acts of kindness to others, even to outsiders.
They had organization and leaders in order to fulfill the purposes and tasks necessary for the health of the whole and the growth of the kingdom of God. Their focus, aside from having Jesus Christ as their center, was building people up and making sure that needs were being met.
They did not build a tightly organized religious organization, and there was no sign of any hierarchy among them, a system in which a privileged leadership group lords it over the others.
As time went on and the memory of the first apostles faded, the church began to orient itself to the leaders that they had turned to in times of trouble. The leaders took power on themselves that was never granted by Christ and eventually so dominated the church that it began to define itself by its leaders.
The church was no longer a body of believers welded together by love, each serving and being served by the other, but rather a religious organizations with all of the usual human trappings of religion.
The world could not conceive of a religion without religious buildings (temples), a visible priesthood, and a system of sacrifice to appease God/the gods. Every religion had these, even the Jews. Yet for the first two centuries the church had none of these.
They together comprised the only Temple and dwelling place of God on earth, after the ascension of Jesus, through the indwelling Spirit.
Their priesthood was invisible, because it was comprised of every single member of the church. Each had the rights and duties of a so-called priesthood, and since none was raised up above the others, to outsiders there was no priesthood at all.
The sacrifice which made them acceptable to God had been carried out once and for always through the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus. There was nothing more required of them. The only remaining appropriate sacrifice was of their very lives! So they lived self-sacrificially, giving of themselves to each other and for the world around them.
Such was the church for two centuries. But through many tiny changes it became a religious institution with visible temples (church buildings), visible priesthood, which wore religious robes and received a salary from the Roman government, and visible sacrifice, carried out in each formal religious service through the mass.
There is a term which comes up over and over in the New Testament, particularly in the letters of Paul. This term is one another, or each other. "Love one another." "Submit to one another." "Build one another up in the love of Christ." "Encourage each other." "Sing to one another." "We are members of one another." These one anothers describe the reality of life and the method of ministry in the early assemblies.
The early believers understood themselves to be the literal - not metaphorical - body of Jesus Christ on earth. They understood him to be the head of his body, while they themselves together made up his other body parts. They were one body, which was held together by love and in which each enjoyed supplying the needs of the others.
As such, they belonged to each other, needed each other, looked to one another for help when they had problems and mutually encouraged, taught and built up each other. They lived in community.
This is a concept largely absent from the modern church, particularly in the West. Institutional churches today live by programs and have structured and planned times together. The spontaneous nature of community, living in-and-out of each other's homes throughout the week, is foreign to most of us.
But that was what the life of the Ekklesia, the Called-Out Ones was like for them. When they thought of church, or church meetings, they never thought of a weekly religious service, with a worship band and preaching.
The picture which came to their minds was of the brothers and sisters getting together, particularly on those occasions when the main focus was drawing near to their Lord Jesus and letting him serve and minister to each other. This rarely happened through one particular gifted individual, but through any person which the Holy Spirit chose to use on any given evening. Their focus was on the Spirit, not on a designated leader.
Ministry took place every day, since each time a few believers or the whole group got together, they constantly looked for ways to help each other grow.
As time went by, this horizontal every-member ministry was replaced by vertical, top-down ministry. Very gradually those who had been entrusted with oversight began taking power and authority to themselves - or had it thrust on them in times of crisis. Yet until Constantine proclaimed Christianity to be the state religion in 313 AD, there was no professional clergy, no leadership class which took the reins of decision making and work of the ministry upon itself.
The very first paid professional clergy were instituted in 316 by Constantine. These quickly fashioned themselves after the idea of the levitical priesthood as a spiritual class, who alone were permitted to do ministry, to preach, to baptize, and to administer communion.
Christianity had moved from a joint ministry amongst equals "you are all brothers," to an office-based ministry which assumed that ordination and approved training alone qualified a person to minister. The distinction between clergy (trained and paid professionals) to laity (meaning: the common folk) had been born.
No one disputes that the early Christians suffered great persecution. Thousands were murdered, crucified, fed to lions, boiled alive and beheaded. No one disputes that these believers also grew tremendously in numbers and influence during this time. Their courage and faith while facing death for their Messiah Jesus convinced many even of their torturers and persecutors to themselves become believers.
The church had influence during this time, but it was a counter-intuitive, not what you'd expect. The early believers overcame by following Jesus to the cross, that is, they didn't try to save their lives, but to give their lives for their Lord and in service to each other and the world. Because they didn't love their lives unto death, the world was turned on its head and transformed through them.
This kind of result is certainly not of this world. But it is absolutely the way God works. The greatest power is in dying to yourself, giving of yourself even if it means death for His sake.
As 313 AD rolled around, Constantine claimed to have had an epiphany and made Christianity the state religion. The church had just survived one of the worst periods of persecution and now, suddenly, they were catapulted to the center of the world stage, with the full approval and endorsement of the most powerful government on earth. Within a short generation, Christians were empowered with political and even - through the support of the emperor, by extension - military might.
The church was brimming with political and societal influence. As a result, new converts began pouring into the churches and newly established seminaries, though many of them were clearly looking to take advantage of the favor the Christians enjoyed. Beginning in 316 Constantine paid the newly established clergy out of state funds and built massive church buildings (the first ever).
The church became embroiled in state politics and the politicians mingled in church decisions. Soon the emperor was dictating to the church what they could do and even what they were permitted to believe. (See the council of Nicaea, 325 AD. Constantine dictated to the bishops, many very unwilling, that they had to stop all "jewish" practices such as celebrating Sabbath, Passover and other biblical holidays).
To a very large degree what took place was a mixing or marriage of state and church. Controversies were often decided by the state, and a change of emperor, political fortunes or even bribes could determine matters of faith.
What's more, Constantine changed the nature and understanding of Christianity. Instead of being those who were called out from the world to become the family of God and the Body of Christ and gathering in homes and other places, they now became identified as those living within a territorial region or under a certain political state which had adopted Christianity as the state religion.
This development, along with the marriage of church with state, was a huge blow to the people of God, from which they still have not recovered to this day. Most still view western nations as Christian, and the same institutional character dominates church life even now. Even the reformation continued in the same vein. Beginning with Luther, kings, princes and rulers chose which religion they would follow, and expected every citizen in their land to convert to that faith.
The biggest blow, however, was the dismantling of the brotherhood of the believers. The original idea of church is of a community. Not like a typical small town, with houses and lives built alongside but separate to each other, but more like the symbiotic relationship between sea anemones and clown fish. Both need each other and live together.
The early believers not only lived near each other and in-and-out of each other's homes, they also kept disputes and problems within their communities. It was one for all and all for one. They understood on a very deep level that they, together, were Jesus Body on earth. It's not only what they believed, it is what they lived every day. Constantine's elevation of the church quickly destroyed that.
So what is better, suffering or influence in society? Is this a trick question, you may ask? In actual fact, in the Kingdom of God, denying yourself, going to the cross - or suffering, if you will - always precedes resurrection and power. You can't have your flesh and God's kind of victory. The flesh has to go.
Constantine's "victory" offered the church flesh and victory. Just take us as we are and we will elevate you and give you a platform you never had! Can't work. Never has, never will. And that's why Constantine's victory was the bullet that almost completely killed the faith for over a thousand years.
Romans 7:6 tells us: "But now we have been delivered from the law, having died to what we were held by, so that we should serve in the newness of the Spirit and not in the oldness of the letter."
The church of the first century had a completely different outlook on meetings and order than practically any church of the last 1800 years. When they spoke of being led by the Spirit, they were not referring to sanctioned and ordained leaders being free to be led by the Spirit. They meant that every single person in a meeting was supposed to be listening to the Spirit and following him.
Naturally, their meetings were very spontaneous and fluid. There was no rigid, expected order of events. They understood that the Holy Spirit was the head of their meetings, and that He had a plan for the meeting that they would discover together as they submitted to Him and listened for His leading.
Of course, as Paul makes clear in 1 Corinthians 14, God is not a God of disorder, but of order. He makes clear that meetings were to find the balance between freedom and participation by everyone present on the one hand, while avoiding egoistic, attention grabbing stunts on the other. If each one takes to heart the teaching to love and prefer another over self, then this won't happen.
What the early believers practiced in their meetings was something new on the earth, the newness of living by the indwelling Spirit of God. This had never existed before, that the living God, the creator, had taken up residence within mortal humans. When the church met, when they let themselves be built together through the bonds of love and mutual submission, they became a beautiful temple for the Spirit of the Lord to indwell.
It is historical fact - and clearly seen in the Bible if we can set our tradition-colored glasses aside for a moment - that the early church exercised this kind of freedom and spontaneity. There was no set order for meetings. Each person felt the priviledge and responsibility to come prepared to both give and receive. Anyone who had a gift, anyone who felt he or she had received a message, was expected to give it - at the moment when they sensed the Holy Spirit's prompting.
Unfortunately this situation did not last. Within a short time the freedom gave way to ever increasing controls by leaders who set themselves up over the flock to "keep them together," and "protect the flock from wolves." By 250 AD bishops had established territorial control and a hierarchy was established for every aspect of meetings and church life.
As Constantine came on the scene the trend was set in concrete. Trusting in the Holy Spirit to keep his people together and keep his church growing was seen as too tenuous, too unsure. As ministry became incorporated into careers, and service to the body turned into powerful ecclesiastical posts, leaders began to do anything in order to build and maintain their kingdoms (has anything really changed?).
The power of the state became the weapon of choice to force people into line and bring stability. From the moment that the church entered into marriage with political power in 313 AD, she had no more ability to grow through the power of God working with committed followers as in the time of the apostles. Instead, from that time persuasion was discarded in favor of the sword with the backing of state power.
From the simplicity and beauty of truly depending on God to lead and preserve his church, the church established rules, hierarchies, programs and power to hold the flock together and establish a power base. What began as a Spirit-led body, an organism, became yet another letter-based institution.
These four shifts in the direction of the church are accepted by practically all historians and theologians. They are not small, though the changes took place incrementally at that time over a period of close to two hundred years. At the end of this time, the original church had disappeared and had been replaced with a mighty institution that was at the same time not even a pale shadow of the glorious church of the first years.
What these four shifts document is that the church experienced a fall from faith that was severe and very long-lasting, lasting in part until the present day. This fall was prophesied by Jesus himself (Matthew 24) and by the apostles. Some today are still looking for a new falling away of the church in the end times.
Yet, in all honesty, how could it be worse than that which took place between AD 80 and 400? In those days the faith and the practice of the church were all but snuffed out. That is why we call those years, and several centuries thereafter, the dark ages! Another expression of christianity rose up, looking and acting completely different, but calling itself by the same name.
As we have seen, it joined itself to worldly power, took on the world's ways, adopted many pagan practices and in the process committed spiritual fornication with the world.
If we are honest with ourselves, we must admit that that the churches of today, REGARDLESS of denomination, flavor or color, look much more like the later version, the church of the apostasy, than the first. This is true whether we are talking about the Catholic church, Orthodox or practically any Protestant church with a building and a membership! The Reformation did bring changes, but they were more cosmetic than deep.
Why is a history lesson like this important for us today? Because this sad story does not end sad. The Lord has begun to do as He long ago promised: He is beginning to restore his church. The end times are all about restoration and the Lord Jesus WILL restore his bride to glory and to an expression that brings honor to him again.
The question remaining for all of us is this: Do you want to perpetuate a dying institution that represents not progress but death (remember, the letter kills...), or do you want to step out in faith into a new walk with God with other believers, learning to live as the living body of Jesus Christ rather than as a religious institution?