Archive for the 'Christian Beginnings' Category

Christian Beginnings

Thursday, November 16th, 2006

Over the centuries, since the beginning of the Christian era, the power and authority through which the teachings of Christ have been disseminated have, by and large, been man-made institutions bearing no resemblance to the spiritual communions that sprang into existence through the initial outpourings of God’s spirit.

As a consequence, there are many things in regard to the church, that we take for granted, which, in fact, have no scriptural origin and are rather a modern fulfillment of Christ’s admonishment of the Pharisees, “You invalidate the word of God for the sake of your tradition…”[1] 

One of the most fundamental is the whole notion of the priesthood as being the separation, within the church, of a clergy as a pre-eminent body distinct from the laity. In the light of scripture there is no justification for this distinction, in fact, we are called to be a nation of priests.[2]  Today’s church obviously gets this blueprint from the Old Testament where the Levites were set apart from the other tribes to be a special priesthood. But this calling did not preclude God’s call to the entire nation,”…and you shall be to Me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation,”[3] rather it was a sanctifying of a tribe to the work of sacrifice and worship, setting them free from the contamination of worldly pursuits, to be entirely given to the service of God.

We must, however, bear in mind that we are talking here of the sacrifice according to the Law and we know, as Paul says, “For what the Law could not do, wherein it was weak through the flesh, God did…”[4] There is no longer a need for a priesthood set apart for sacrifice[5], for in Christ we have a great High Priest, who through His sacrifice, through the shedding of His blood, perfected once and for all our sanctification from sin. He has opened up for us the way into the Holy of Holies. If we now enter through Christ into the holy place[6], the copy of which only the High Priest was permitted to enter and then only once a year; how much greater is the priesthood of all believers in comparison to the Levitical priesthood, and not just men but women also, for in Christ all have entered, male and female, the entire congregation, not into a copy made with hands, but into heaven itself.

The Levitical priesthood therefore has been fulfilled; there is no longer a need for a reverential elite set apart as a precursor to Christ. The veil has been torn apart[7], the mystery revealed, the way is opened, all who enter in are being saved.

Why then do we continue with these lines of division, this demarcation, this sense of theatre: the players and the audience, the holy ones and the rabble, the rich and the poor, those who wear the robes of office who sit in the places of honour and those who fill the pews? Jesus, after all, did warn us, “Woe to you Pharisees!  For you love the front seats in the synagogues and the respectful greetings in the marketplaces”[8] and also “beware of the leaven of the Pharisees, which is hypocrisy.”[9] 

This is not to say that there shouldn’t be church leaders and those who speak with authority, but rather on whose authority they speak.  The church of today, whatever denomination, in almost every case has a hierarchy which has more to do with institutionalism than revelation. Paul says, “And He gave some apostles and some prophets and some evangelists and some shepherds and some teachers for the perfecting of the saints for the work of service to the building up of the body of Christ”[10]; but how many of these do we see at work in the church today? Going on from there, Paul continues, “until we all attain to the unity of the faith, and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to a perfect man, to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ”. Hard words indeed for the church of today to claim as their own, for where is there unity and who believes in perfection; yet it was for this purpose that God gives authority to man!

In reading church history there is the so-called ‘Apostolic Age’ which leads into a period where the church was ruled by a more structured hierarchy. Apostles and prophets ceased to be. It is assumed that with the passing of those who had witnessed Christ alive in the flesh a new age of church administration was born.    No one questions this assumption; it is merely assumed that because the church no longer had ‘Apostles’ there were no longer to be ‘apostles’.  Apparently the Lord stopped sending messengers. There is no reason given, He simply stopped, although He did say in prayer “As Thou didst send Me into the world, I also have sent them into the world.”[11] (αποστολος – one sent as a messenger). Either He had nothing to say, which I doubt, or no one to send, which seems more likely.  One thing is certain, however, the need for apostles has never ceased; and as for the role for prophets the church hasn’t a clue, even though Paul did say “covet to prophesy”[12], for when a man prophesies he speaks God’s words to edify, encourage and console.  It would seem the church no longer needed these ministries for the building up of the body.   Something must have eluded us, the perfect must have come![13]  That would explain the fractured, divided, limping, powerless body of men we call the church.

Instead of a dynamic body of spiritual men, empowered by God, energised by love, being built up into the image, the perfect likeness of Christ, we have the shell emptily peddling the words they have learned by rote, no longer believing that Christ is able to do all things in us, even perfecting us.   How did a movement which had such a glorious beginning so quickly lose impetus.   The power that flowed from Christ’s vanquishing of death, all the might and power of God poured out in abundance on the early church, the dead were raised, the sick were healed, demons were cast out, all this has vanished. The best we can do is look back and say we were once mighty.

The present priesthood has evolved out of those who were called presbyters in the early church. The word priest is originally from the Greek word πρεσβυτερος, an elder.  Although there were no hard and fast rules basically the work of an apostle founded churches and eventually they moved on, leaving behind spiritually mature men and women (elders), to oversee the continuing growth of the church.  The word translated overseer is the Greek word επισκοπος from which we get the word bishop.    In scripture the function of overseers and elders are indistinguishable and the words interchangeable[14].  In the early church there was no hierarchical structure among elders, this evolved after the ending of what we sadly call the apostolic age. Interestingly enough, in the light of all the fuss over female priests in the church today, there were female elders at Ephesus[15]. The question that arises is how does a group of elders, overseeing a local congregation, become a singular minister under a bishop.   In the period of time between the initial persecutions under Nero and the adoption of Christianity by Constantine, the church underwent a remarkable transformation.    With grace and power, in word and deed, in signs and wonders, in a mighty outpouring of God’s spirit, those being saved were filled with awe and wonder in the Acts of the Apostles; but after such a glorious beginning and two centuries of persecution, all that remained were schisms and heresies, controversies raged over the doctrine of the Trinity.   The ‘Apostolic Age” had made way for the ‘Theological Age’ and the church has never recovered.

The process of this change is hidden and cannot be clearly studied, as there is little contemporary writing to be found. The writings we do have from that period are those by whom the church deems fathers. It is hardly surprising that they conform to what the church was becoming.  All we are able to do is to deduce what we can and to study the documents in the light of scripture.

In the letter of Clement to the Corinthians we see the germination of what were subsequently handed down as traditions and embroidered to eventually become canon law. Although the wise fathers saw fit not to include it as scriptural truth it has nevertheless been held in high regard and passed down as orthodox.   There are several worrying aspects to this letter that should be raised.

Through Clement we see the first introduction of laity into Christian thought, the congregation as distinct from the clergy. This he does by wrongly using a picture of the divisions of authority in the worship of the Old Testament temple to instill fear into the church at Corinth.    He claims that as there are specific functions that only the High Priest could perform so only those rightfully appointed can perform the various functions of church worship.   Now, on the face of it, there is nothing unscriptural in this warning, for God surely does appoint apostles and ministers to guide us in the faith.  However He does stop short of institutionalising the process whereby this happens and this is the area of error that Clement is falling into.   By all means rebuke a man when he sins, but to draw on a line of succession up to the apostles and through to Christ (as he subsequently does), as reason for maintaining a man in office is wrong.  For a start, the authority we have in the church is spiritual, it comes directly from God.   What sort of authority were the elders at Corinth wielding that they could be cast aside by unruly ‘hot-heads’ and thus provoke this letter from Clement? If the church members at Corinth were so unimpressed with the spiritual authority of those over them that they cast them aside, would they miraculously become impressed after a missive from Clement?

It seems remarkable that in such a short time the church had lost its way.  Rather than being built up into “the stature of the fullness of Christ”[16], “according to the effectual working of each individual part”[17], we see the church being lead by a head who isn’t Christ, but rather the elusive authority of ecclesiastical office.   Clement was, in effect, more concerned with maintaining the due process of office and the appearance of order than he was of seeing Christ truly glorified, and his letter is written appealing to the church to walk in this discipline.    The letter has more of the feel of the modern archbishop than of the spiritual authority of Paul.

The question that arises is why did the church stumble so badly and walk tangentially to the truth?    However, if we look to scripture we can clearly see the beginnings of this occurring. Paul’s letters to the Corinthians were obviously written to a church in crisis.   He writes, “And I brethren could not speak to you as to spiritual men, but as to men of the flesh, as to babes in Christ”[18].  To the church at Ephesus he spoke, “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 the disciples after them”[19].

Again, to Timothy he writes, “You are aware of the fact that all who are in Asia turned away from me.”[20]  Jude speaks of “hidden reefs in our love feasts”[21]and Peter warns “But false prophets also arose among the people, just as there will also be false teachers among you”[22].    With these signs and warnings (and there are more) it can be seen that the seeds were already there, from the beginning, for the church to stumble in the way that it has.   If the church as a whole was reluctant to take discipline from such a glorious beginning how soon would it be before the light was all but extinguished.

No one has taken these warnings as seriously as they ought, mainly because false teachers had already taken control so early in the piece, and when they did take action it was for wrong reasons and in the wrong way, (the inquisition for example).  Jesus issued many warnings that are recorded in the gospels, “Watch out and beware of the leaven of the Pharisees and Sadducees”[23] is repeated several times.   Those who sat themselves in the seat of Moses were imitated by those who sat themselves in the seat of the Apostles.  Those who had control, maintained control by teaching they alone had authority to appoint teachers and ministers through the succession of office, conferred by the laying on of hands, in unbroken chain, beginning with the Apostles. This goes against scripture, for it prevents God from acting as He did in appointing Paul an apostle. If God doesn’t abide by the church’s convention who should?  Paul, himself, didn’t stand on the ceremony of deferring to the more eminent apostles.   He stood up for the rights of the Gentiles both in Jerusalem[24] and in Antioch[25], the first concerning circumcision and the latter when Cephas refused to eat with them.  God never follows conventional wisdom; if He did He would be like us.   Jesus appointed Judas but no one would believe it right to follow him, but the church teaches we must follow every fool who has had hands laid upon him.

Barely sixty years had passed since the crucifixion and resurrection, and already the church is busy playing follow the leader instead of shining forth with the glorious power of the resurrection.   Eternal life, the power of God poured out into the hearts of men, raising us up into the fellowship of God, the very image of Christ, brothers and sisters aflame with His love, proclaiming the excellences of His grace and shaking the world to its very foundation at the power of the glory of the light of His truth.

Instead we have the tired words of tired men, speaking the platitudes of faith, stirring us up to continue in the dead works, the peaceable building up of another dead monument in the remembrance of a great event. Just as the Jews looked to Abraham as their father and to Moses as their prophet, we say we are sons of God, through Christ, and the works of the Apostles are our glory.    But Jesus said to the Jews “if you were Abraham’s children you would do the works of Abraham”[26]and to the church He says “…he that believes on me, the works that I do, shall he do also…”[27].  Look at the church and at the Jews and say who is the true son.  To the Jews He said “your house is being left to you desolate”[28]and to the church He says “ I know your works that you are neither cold nor hot; I would that you were cold or hot, but because you are lukewarm I will spew you out of my mouth.”[29] 

What does Clement’s letter say to us, the struggling church, across the centuries? He paints the church at Corinth as an example of perfect piety, perfect unity that has gone completely off the rails because of a few hot-heads. The perfect picture he paints is like no church I’ve known, that is quite possibly a reflection on the church of today, but also it is like no church I could imagine for it lacks reality, it is devoid of life.   If the church was like the example he paints how could they be so stirred up by a couple of jealous hot-heads and if they were so unruly, tossing out God’s elect, how would a letter, some time down the track from Clement, change all that.   The letter has none of the authority of Paul and if it is written in the power of the Holy Spirit as he claims, it would have. What it says to me is that the church had already lost the light of Christ and it was clinging to the life raft of the words and the authority of the Apostles in the same way that the Jews cling to the Law and the Prophets as legitimising their claim to being God’s people.

So in Clement we see the beginnings of error strengthened.   Not only is there this separation of laity and clergy within the church, but also the clerical office is becoming the unassailable bastion of church authority.   We don’t have to look too deeply into the church of today to see the fruits of this heresy.

It wasn’t only the structure of the church that was being assailed by the early fathers but also their dearest acts of piety were redefining true religion.   An example of this is found in the letters of Ignatius written to various churches as he is being taken to Rome to be thrown to the wild beasts.   In his letter to the Ephesians he writes “…and trusting through your prayers to be granted an encounter with the wild beasts at Rome – a boon that will enable me to become a true disciple.”    This indecent striving for the martyr’s crown sits uneasily, as if it would be unkind of God to spare him of this ordeal; something that Jesus Himself asked of the Father in the garden of Gethsemane.  These attitudes enshrined the wrong kind of martyrdom, it was a ‘look at me I am the most humble and undeserving of men to receive such a high honour’. This type of bravado has become the legends of the church, the great men of faith, raising the lives of the saints to a level where the average churchgoer can only dream of emulating.

The other worrying aspects of Ignatius’ letters were his teachings on church structure and obedience.   He says in part, in his letter to the Ephesians, “…and this, if sanctification is to be yours in full measure, means uniting in a common act of submission and acknowledging the authority of your bishop and clergy”.  To the Magnesians he says, “Let the bishop preside in the place of God…” and again “… you yourselves must never act independently of your bishop and clergy. On no account persuade yourselves that it is right and proper to follow your own private judgment”.   Yet again he writes, “Be as submissive to the bishop and to one another as Jesus Christ was to His Father…”

On the surface this may seem appropriate, we are told to “be subject to our elders”[30] and to “be subject to one another in the fear of Christ”[31], but Paul also warns us, “It was for freedom that Christ set us free, therefore keep firm and do not be subject again to a yoke of slavery”[32].  Unfortunately this was what was happening, men were becoming slaves of an institution instead of to Christ.

As, has already been discussed, there is no division of congregation and clergy in scripture, for we are all priests.   Likewise there is no hierarchical structure with a bishop at its head.   Not only this, but Ignatius places the bishop at a higher place than the Apostles, for he writes in his letter to the Trallians, “…you should also look on the bishop as a type of the Father and the clergy as the Apostolic circle…”. Now here we see the full foolishness of Ignatius’ statements, for here we see Ignatius the Bishop of Antioch writing at the same time to the Romans “…I am not issuing orders to you, as though I were a Peter or a Paul.  They were Apostles, and I am a condemned criminal”.  He himself is the best advocate of the danger inherent in what he preaches.

The problem inherent in the institutionalisation of the church is that we are led to defend the structure rather than the truth. For example Paul’s instruction to imitate him[33] is a bold statement but one he makes in the full assurance of faith, in the knowledge he has, of his relationship with Christ.  But if one of our bishops today instructed us likewise we would be very cautious indeed, for we would have no assurance that they knew Christ in the intimate way that Paul did. This raises two points:- firstly that we should have this assurance, because we are all given the opportunity to know Him in this way, ·        and secondly the hypocrisy of claiming the authority of office without the spiritual wisdom and maturity that is evident in Paul.

Once we have a structure in place we put mediocre men in positions of authority to fulfill our perceptions of what is necessary to maintain the structure. What this inevitably does is blinds us to the necessity of facing what is lacking in our own faith.  If there are no Spirit filled, mature Christians walking in the image of Christ how can we dare fill the positions of authority within the church. When we should be facing what is lacking in our own faith, in our own love of God, and putting things right, we are instead appointing pastors and deacons and elders, all men cast in our own image.

The other unfortunate consequence of this institutionalisation is what we come to expect from the church.   Instead of it being a dynamic meeting between God and man, the visible reality of Christ transforming us into His image, we have theatre.    The institution provides the rules, the actors and the buildings and the congregation provides the money to keep the show on the road.  Not only that, we now have numerous theatre companies with slightly different rules.   There’s traditional theatre, highbrow, low brow, avant-garde, old time music hall, pop, jazz, anything at all to satisfy our need to believe we have peace with God.  We are afraid to step out from the security of numbers and take a long and uncompromising look at the church.  If we were to do so we would have to ask fundamental questions about our faith, the purpose of our lives, and the relevance of our institutions in the true worship of God.   Having looked, then enquired of God and been instructed, we would have to stand like the prophets of old, apart from the throng, and speak out, even to our own hurt, in the hope of awakening in the hearts of others a true love of God.

What is it we hope to see when we go to worship on Sunday?  Do we really hope to know the glory of God in our midst?  Do we really hope to know Christ, to know the power of His love transforming even our innermost thoughts?  Or do we expect to be lead by a man very much like ourselves, schooled in the art of platitudes, having the aura of piety but none of its power, comforted by companionable friendship and the assurance of assumed faith, old familiar hymns, the happy repetitive choruses, all the accoutrements of religion but nothing of the power of love that flowed through the early church?

As we have seen this blindness has its roots right back with the early church fathers.   In response to Docetism, the heresy that held that Jesus’ death only had the appearance of reality; the church became more concerned of its members stumbling than with the power of the truth to save.    Orthodoxy became synonymous with church authority, unfortunately a heresy that remains to this day.   Ignatius wrote in response to these teachings in his epistle to the Smyrnaeans, “Follow your bishop, everyone of you, as Jesus Christ followed the Father.   Obey your clergy too, as you would the Apostles; give your deacons the same reverence as you would to a command of God.”  The clergy and their teachings were replacing the Holy Spirit as the light that enlightens.   Jesus speaking to His disciples said, “ But when He, the spirit of truth comes, He will guide you into all the truth; for He will not speak on His own initiative, but whatever He hears, He will speak; and He will disclose to you what is to come”[34], and John says in his first letter, “ And as for you, the anointing which you received from Him abides in you, and you have no need for anyone to teach you, but as His anointing teaches you about all things and is true and is not a lie, and just as it has taught you, you abide in Him”[35]. Now the words of John stand in marked contrast to the teaching of Ignatius, especially when you bear in mind that both letters were written in response to those who would spread heresies, attempting to deceive the elect.   One can only surmise as to what had happened within the church in the period between John writing in about 60 AD and Ignatius in approximately 107 AD.  John’s words ring out with a strength and confidence that is completely lacking in Ignatius1. The people John is writing to know within themselves what is the truth[36], for the Holy Spirit bears witness with their spirit[37], they have no need of instruction merely encouragement to keep walking in the way they have come to know.   Ignatius, on the other hand, discourages those to whom he writes of trusting in anything but the bishop, for he writes to the Magnesians, “ On no account persuade yourselves that it is right and proper to follow your own private judgment”.   He must be speaking to those who are “always learning but never coming to a knowledge of the truth”[38]. 


[1]  Matt 15:6

[2]  1Pet 2:9,Rev 1:6

[3]  Ex 19:6

[4]  Rom 8:3

[5]  Heb 10:1-18

[6]  Heb 9 & Heb 10:19-20

[7]  Luke 23:45

[8]  Luke 11:43

[9]  Luke 12:1

[10]        Eph 4:11-13

[11]          John 18:18

[12]         1Cor 14:1-3

[13]       1Cor 13:8-10

[14]        Titus 1:5-10

[15]             1Tim 5:2

[16]            Eph  4:13

[17]             Eph 4:16

[18]              1Cor 3:1

[19]     Acts 20:29-30

[20]           2Tim 1:15

[21]           Jude vs 12

[22]              2Pet 2:1

[23]            Matt 16:6

[24]   Acts chapter 15

[25]              Gal 2:11

[26]            John 8:39

[27]          John 14:12

[28]          Matt 23:38

[29]        Rev 3:15-16

[30]              1Pet 5:5

[31]             Eph 5:21

[32]                Gal 5:1

[33]            1Cor 11:1

[34]          John 16:13

[35]          1John 2:27

[36]          1John 5:10

[37]            Rom 8:16

[38]             2Tim 3:7