When reading through the New Testament, several facts are rationally unavoidable. One is that Jesus Christ promised to build a church (Mt. 18:18). Another blatant fact of Scripture is that said church was established on the first Pentecost after His death:
Then they that gladly received his word were baptized: and the same day there were added unto them about three thousand souls. And they continued stedfastly in the apostles’ doctrine and fellowship, and in breaking of bread, and in prayers…And they, continuing daily with one accord in the temple, and breaking bread from house to house, did eat their meat with gladness and singleness of heart, Praising God, and having favour with all the people. And the Lord added to the church daily such as should be saved (Acts 2:41, 42, 46, 47 KJV emp. added).
As we continue this hypothetical read through the New Testament, another actuality which ought to become apparent is that there is one church. Scripture plainly teaches that there is one body, and that the body is the church (Rom. 12:4-5; 1 Cor. 10:17; 12:12-13, 20; Eph. 4:4-6; Col. 1:18; 3:15). In fact, the division and sectarianism we see around us in the religious world today was urgently prohibited in the New Testament: “I appeal to you, brothers, by the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that all of you agree, and that there be no divisions among you, but that you be united in the same mind and the same judgment” (1 Cor. 1:10 ESV).
Asking the Right Question
With these facts being firmly established and scripturally supported, the honest Bible student ought to ask himself, “If it is the case that there is only one Jesus-built, Bible-approved church, and that the Bible condemns division and sectarianism, why are there so many churches today?” This is such a great question, and hopefully is frequently asked by impartial students of the Bible. The endeavor of this paper is to examine the root of the answer to that very question—a study of the departure, the great apostasy, the desertion of the New Testament pattern. Any sound discussion of church history will include a section on a departure from the apostolic template as predicted by inspired authors, and such will be the topic for the duration of this exposition.
A Departure Foretold
Before we examine the details of the departure itself, we must establish the departure was foretold by the Holy Spirit through the inspired writers of the New Testament. This grand-scale initial apostasy is not merely an example of historical eisegeses done by members of the church of Christ. This departure from the truth was warned of by the Apostles and was most likely expected by sound second century Christians. The Apostle Paul adamantly warned a group of Ephesian elders, “I know that after my departure fierce wolves will come in among you, not sparing the flock; and from among your own selves will arise men speaking twisted things, to draw away the disciples after them. Therefore be alert…” (Acts 20:29-31a ESV). Thus, we are inclined to believe that Paul (as an inspired man) was not lying to those Ephesians elders, and indeed men did arise in the Lord’s church who spoke untrue things and caused Christians to depart from the truth. Likewise, Paul urged the young preacher Timothy concerning the coming apostasy:
Now the Spirit expressly says that in later times some will depart from the faith by devoting themselves to deceitful spirits and teachings of demons, through the insincerity of liars whose consciences are seared, who forbid marriage and require abstinence from foods that God created to be received with thanksgiving by those who believe and know the truth (1 Tim. 4:1-3 ESV).
In later times (we are in the “last days” now and have been since the first Pentecost after Jesus’ death Acts 2:17), the Spirit was clearly communicating to Paul that there would be a departure from the truth. Such men whose god was their bellies (cf. Phil. 3:18-19) would, with mouths filled with lies, lead many away from the truth. Fast forward over one thousand years and “Christendom” is as divided as can be.
The Initial Departure
It is generally agreed that this departure began soon after the death of the last Apostle, John (Mattox 107). The initial departure from the New Testament pattern began in several areas including organization, worship and doctrine. Today we can see the result of this initial departure all around us. A departure from the New Testament plan in some subtle areas may not seem important. But if we are to hold that the New Testament is the Word of God, we better follow it. Perhaps the earliest departure from truth in the area of organization was the rise of a “monarchal episcopate” (Mattox 108). In other words, congregations went from the canonical organization of congregations being overseen by a plurality of elders (a.k.a. bishops, overseers, presbyters cf. Acts 14:23; Tit. 1:5), to being overseen by “one ‘bishop’ with a group of presbyters and deacons under him” (Mattox 108).
This subtle shift in organization later led to synods, apostolic succession, metropolitans, and Popes (Mattox 110)—all of which have absolutely zero support in the New Testament. Likewise, as early as 150 AD, there is evidence of a created distinction between preachers and the rest of the congregation. Even though the Bible is clear that every Christian is a priest and Christ is our High Priest (1 Pet. 2:9; Heb. 4:15), soon enough, there was a clergy-laity system and official priesthoods which later led to the rigid extra-Biblical ceremonialism we still see in some denominations today (Mattox 111).
The initial departure from the truth in doctrine was the result of human philosophy being placed on the same level of (if not higher than) Scripture. Gnosticism and all of its strains became increasingly popular within Christianity as early as 150-200 AD (Mattox 112). Gnosticism was characterized by several false doctrines. Such included a rejection of the God of the Old Testament, a supreme being and lesser deities, angelic orders, evil being inherent in flesh, Christ not coming in the flesh but the spirit only, abstinence from all physical gratification (including marriage and meals, cf. 1 Tim. 4:1-4), and no resurrection from the dead (Mattox 112). Starting in around 200 AD, the Gnostics lost their grip within the Christian fold and formed their own societies to perpetuate their mysticism. While Gnosticism had not fully emerged at the time of the writing of the New Testament, there are still many Biblical objections and warnings concerning Gnostic practices. Paul sternly instructed the Colossians concerning the asceticism and falsity of incipient Gnosticism:
Let no one disqualify you, insisting on asceticism and worship of angels, going on in detail about visions, puffed up without reason by his sensuous mind … If with Christ you died to the elemental spirits of the world, why, as if you were still alive in the world, do you submit to regulations—‘Do not handle, Do not taste, Do not touch’ (referring to things that all perish as they are used)—according to human precepts and teachings? These have indeed an appearance of wisdom in promoting self-made religion and asceticism and severity to the body, but they are of no value in stopping the indulgence of the flesh (Col. 2:18, 20-21 ESV).
Also, John wrote concerning the incipient denial of Christ coming in the flesh:
Beloved, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits to see whether they are from God, for many false prophets have gone out into the world. By this you know the Spirit of God: every spirit that confesses that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is from God, and every spirit that does not confess Jesus is not from God. This is the spirit of the antichrist, which you heard was coming and now is in the world already (1 Jn. 4:1-3 ESV).
This initial departure from the inspired doctrine led to several sects including Neoplatonism, Manichaeism, Monarchianism, Marcionism, and others (Mattox 113-114). Such departures led to further apostasy and false teaching, including millennial eschatology, inherited sin and infant baptism, and far reaching asceticism (Mattox 120).
The gap between the truth and those who proclaimed to practice it grew even wider going into the 4th century. After the Roman Emperor Constantine began to endorse Christianity. It seems that the Emperor was using Christianity as a means to unify and strengthen the struggling Roman Empire (Mattox 127). Constantine’s involvement in Christianity resulted in a dangerous blend of church and state. Before long, the church looked more like the state. There were articles of faith, ecumenical councils, and an organization which mirrored Rome more than the Bible (Mattox 128-147). Romanism was in charge and stayed so for a millennium. This departure from the truth would lead to the Roman Catholic Church, and all of the denominations which were formed as a result of protests against (or reformations to) it.
While we read of one, pure, Jesus-built church in the New Testament, when we look around we see thousands of perversions. These perversions all have their roots in the initial departure away from the pattern found in Scripture. Said departure was foreseen by those first century men as inspired by the Holy Spirit. This departure initially was evidenced by men twisting the organization of Christ’s body. Departures in doctrine and worship were soon to follow. Fast forward over 1,500 years and we have the “Christian” landscape which we see today. If we have any hope, it is in the simple, unadulterated church of Christ. To add, subtract, reform, or adjust the Scriptural plan is to damn oneself and embrace a lie. Let us look at the sectarianism which surrounds us with tears and disdain, realizing that such is a departure from the approval of God, following the footsteps of the heretics of millennia’s past.
The Holy Bible: English Standard Version. Wheaton: Standard Bible Society, 2001. Print.
The Holy Bible: King James Version. Electronic Edition of the 1900 Authorized Version. Bellingham, WA: Logos Research Systems, Inc., 2009. Print.
Mattox, F.W. The Eternal Kingdom. Delight: Gospel Light Publishing Company, 1961. Print.