What shape the church?
With the failures within much of institutionalised churchianity, many believers are now looking critically at a range of underlying issues. Steve Taylor speaks into the how matters relating to authority and church structures have evolved.
Ed preface: There are most likely several contributing factors, but the present time has seen a rise and rise in the number of believers who are unhappy which much of what they see in (heavily-)organised churchianity. The most-recent and tragic example being the very public rebellion by the national Church of Scotland regarding God's standards on human sexuality and the failure by the denomination to exercise any discipline on these issues. But at one level what were seeing are merely symptoms of even deeper problems.
Into all of this many are asking serious and fundamental questions about church structures and the modus operandii of formal church life. Many small groups of believers are now meeting together in ways which are more organic than institutional; more relational than formal; more 'priesthood of all believers' than hierarchical.
What follows is an essay written by Steve Taylor. (The first two chapters were published on the CT website in 2011.) Though written over 15 years ago, it resonates into the general situation of today with as much relevance as it had then.
The Abuse of Authority
by Steve Taylor
CHAPTER 1 - THE BACKGROUND
Our society, in common with most of the western world, bases its government and other organisations on a pyramid structure – one person is at the top, many layers sit below and the majority – the broad base – is at the bottom. It is a typical authority structure, common throughout the world over the ages.
The boss at the top is in charge and, through his many subordinates, he directs and controls his staff, citizens or members. All of us are familiar with it – indeed our everyday lives are governed this way.
The same dynamic can be found in church structures; and one of the great problems which faced the church, almost from its inception, was – and still is – rooted in this matter of authority. This issue is also at the heart of many of the problems we face today and is often the reason for the division and strife we find within Christendom. Who rules? This was also the question at the root of the contention between Jesus and the religious leaders of His day. They viewed Jesus as a threat to their authority structure! He was an outsider; a heretical teacher who failed to conform to the norm the elders had established.
In the face of Jesus’ ministry these leaders felt their power and influence was at stake (Luke 20; 1-2; Mark 11:27-33). They demanded unquestioned obedience from the people and if anyone dared question their authority or traditions, the fury of their wrath was sure to follow. This can be clearly seen in the incident of the man born blind but healed by Jesus, recorded in the gospel of John (John 9:1 - 34).
In stark contrast Jesus stated that his followers should not follow such a pattern: “You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their high officials exercise authority over them. Not so with you. Instead, whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first must be your slave - just as the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.” (Matthew 20: 25 - 28)
In our own day the pressure to conform to the dogmas of any given religious group is seen most clearly in movements or cults such as the Jehovah's Witnesses. Such an organisation demands unquestioned adherence to the beliefs of the organisation and will use both psychological pressure and its authority structure to enforce compliance.
Closer to home however, in churches we would recognise as evangelical and orthodox in doctrine and practice, we find that the same means are employed in a slightly milder manner. Sadly, many Christian people, including clergy, when they discover that another Christian is not of their ‘brand’ or denomination, have no interest or brotherly concern for the individual. Such a reaction places upon that person a psychological pressure to conform in order to be accepted as part of the group. The same principal is employed in the world where, to be accepted as ‘one of the boys/girls’, one must fit in with the pattern of that particular group.
Once inside such a group or organisation the same pressure is employed – in the full knowledge that failure to continue to support the accepted views, or to question them, will bring upon the individual the displeasure of the leaders and members. It is just such a pressure that will keep a Jehovah’s Witness within the organisation, even although he/she has discovered that it is a teacher of false doctrine. It is to be feared that this same pressure keeps many a Christian within an organisation/church system they know to be unfaithful to the revealed will and word of God.
It is for this reason that, even within many of our evangelical churches, freedom of conscience exercised within the framework of adherence to the fundamentals of historic Christianity, becomes unacceptable. This is a dangerous drift and the result of it can be seen in many tragic situations, both throughout history and even in our own day.
Centuries ago Martin Luther, who himself was the child of such circumstances wrote: "A Christian man is a free Lord over everything and subject to no one". But he also stated: "A Christian man is an obedient servant in everything and subject to everyone". Although these statements appear contradictory, the two sides of the coin can be found in 1 Corinthians 9: 19, where the Apostle Paul says, "Though I am free and belong to no man, I make myself a slave to everyone, to win as many as possible". The difference here lies between a submission enforced by men who claim a superior position and insist on subjection to their authority, as opposed to a submission and service that comes freely from the heart of the individual.
Such an incident is recorded in Galatians 2:4 - 5, when the apostle describes a situation whereby: "This matter arose because some false brothers had infiltrated our ranks to spy on the freedom we have in Christ Jesus and to make us slaves". As Paul sums up the danger of such a situation and argues against it he affirms: "The only thing that counts is FAITH expressing itself through LOVE" (Galatians 5:6). In these words the Apostle sums up the essence of freedom in the Christian life. Here we do not find any hint of fear, psychological or otherwise. There is nothing negative, but the positive motivations of faith and love. It is in these that we find the best deterrent against wrongdoing and the greatest motivation for good works.
But the history of the church, both past and present, is evidence of the fact that, so often, we have failed to learn this lesson. Someone has written, "The price of freedom is eternal vigilance”.
Our Christian freedom can so often be lost, not is a sudden violent moment, but by subtle erosion – so that gradually the individual Christian relinquishes the God given right to exercise his or her conscience; to think for themselves; to arrive at his own conclusions and convictions, and finally accepts a second-hand faith based on the convictions and reasoning of others.
This is very often the case when a group, a church or a denomination, through its leaders – either by inference or directly – claim to be the sole agent of understanding God's truth. This attitude and claim is not limited to the cults but can be observed in many churches and Christian groups which are, to all intents and purposes, evangelistic in doctrine and practice.
Such a situation most often arrives through a man (or men) seeking to impose his/their will and opinion upon others. The Lord repeatedly warned His disciples against such a situation. It was as a result of the corrupted tendency of the human heart for domination that the early Christian congregation was changed from a brotherhood, united in the bonds of love and a basic belief in the fundamentals of the faith, to a hierarchal system of institutionalised religion.
The basic problem therefore lies in two areas: -
1 - A misunderstanding or misapplication of biblical authority.
2 - The abuse of authority.
For the true believer, ultimately Christ alone must be the sole source of authority (1 Cor.11: 3, 12:4-11; 1 Cor 11:27-31). The roles in scripture which are so often used to justify an authority structure – Shepherd, Apostle, Prophet, Teacher, Elder etc. – are not offices or ranks in an authority structure but rather services (ministries) to be rendered to the church, Christ's body.
These services are for the up building of the church, the people of God, so that they may grow to be mature Christians; not constantly dependent on others to think for them (See Eph 4:11-16, 1 Cor.3: 1-3; Heb.5: 12-14).
Paul in writing to Timothy presents the Christian community in terms of family relationships (1 Tim.5: 1-2). Those who were older in the faith and in Christian experience could serve in a similar way to an older brother in a family. While as elder son he may be expected and entrusted to keep the instructions of the head of the family, in no sense should be presume to act as if he were the head of the family, or to make rules and regulations other than those given by the head.
So it should be in the Christian family. Christ is the head and master. He has left his instructions. We are all members of his family. The younger should be subject to the older. The older should serve in love and grace but never in a condescending and authoritarian manner.
But very early in the history of the church, the principles of family relationships and mutual subjection to one another had become corrupted.
By 325 AD we discover that a council of bishops, presided over by Constantine had produced a creed to which Christians everywhere were expected to subscribe.
What were the factors that made possible; this alteration of the Christian community from a simple brotherhood to an authoritarian church system?
CHAPTER 2 - THE CORRUPTION OF THE CHRISTIAN COMMUNITY
The first sign of corruption seems to have come with a change in the view regarding the place and role of elders or presbyters (the Greek term for elder being ‘presbyteros’). Instead of being seen as elder brothers serving in the family, the claim that they held a special relationship with God – distinct from and superior to their fellow believers – began to emerge.
While it is true that elders in the New Testament had authority it is clear that it was authority to serve, not to subjugate others (Matthew 20: 25 – 28; Matt. 23: 10 – 11; 2 Corinthians 1:24).
The elder’s authority is seen in dealing with error by truthful argument and persuasion, in a spirit of humility and by example (Titus 1:9 - 13; 1 Peter 5:1 - 5). The principle outlined in these scriptures must always be kept in mind and other scriptures seen and understood in the light of them. For instance Hebrews 13:17 exhorts us "be obedient to those who are taking the lead among you, be submissive....” At face value one may think that this text exhorts an automatic submission to persons who takes the lead, but Jesus Himself warned against the dangers of this (Matt 23:8-12).
When we examine the context of Hebrews 13, we discover that the Greek word ‘peithomai’ rendered ‘be obedient’ in our Bible also has the sense ‘to trust; to be convinced; to believe; to follow’. W.E. Vine in his Expository Dictionary notes in this connection - "The obedience suggested is not a submission to authority, but resulting from persuasion".
But the apostle had in fact already qualified matters in v7 by making plain that those "taking the lead" were men who "spoke the word of God to you" of whom Paul could say: "imitate their faith".
As long as the guidance given is in harmony with the word of God and the teaching of Jesus Christ, and as long as the shepherding manifests His spirit then our response ought to be positive. But we are not exhorted to automatic or unquestioned submission to any who claim a superior authority with the right to command obedience.
However, even as the apostles had foreseen (Acts 20: 28-30), some elders lost sight of their true position and the principles laid down by the founder of the faith. Instead of giving place to God’s authority, such men began to emphasise their own. Why did they succeed? Perhaps like many today, the people then preferred to let others bear a responsibility which was properly their own (2 Corinthians 11: 20).
This form of corrupted authority in the leadership of the Church had already surfaced during the ministry of the Apostle John. He writes of Diotrephus, describing him as one who "loves to be first" (3 John: 9-10). Notice that he also expelled from the Church those who would not conform to his position. How often has this been repeated in the history of the Church, even today?
We can trace the growth of this attitude in the writings of Ignatius of Antioch (AD 30 to AD 107). In them we find exhortations such as: "And ye be subject to your presbyters (elders) as to the apostles of Jesus Christ. Your presbyters preside in the place of the assembly of the Apostles. Be subject to your presbyters (body of elders) as to the law of Jesus Christ (Ignatius ‘Epistle to the Trallians’)
Teachings such as these marked the beginning of a clergy/laity distinction. Thus the doctrine and practice of the ‘Priesthood of all believers’ was corrupted; and priesthood – distinct from the main body of believers – began to emerge. This had dire consequences for the Church, the effects of which are felt even today.
The drift towards a visible centralised authority continued in the elevation of men – not only of the elders, but subsequently to one super elder. This concentration of authority in a single individual appears to have been a practical step, made in the light of an influx of false teaching. Jerome, who first translated the bible in to Latin in AD 404, states, "Gradually all the responsibility was deferred to a single person, that the thickets of heresy might be rooted out".
Thus one of the elders became the ‘Overseer’. The word ‘Bishop’ is derived from the Greek word for overseer ‘Episkapos’. Consequently, the office of Bishop was born. Ultimately supreme authority was given to the one man. In 415AD the Council of Chalcedon agreed that the term ‘Pope’ be reserved exclusively for one man - Leo the Great (AD 390 to 461). Leo bent all his strength towards gaining recognition for the Bishop of Rome as universal Bishop.
One historian records "Instead of being a humble pastor, as were the early presbyters who ministered to the flock of God, he (the Pope) is now able to hold his own with kings and beat them at their diplomatic game. His proud claim is that he is supreme over all the churches and all other Bishops" (AM Renwick, The story of the Church, IVP; Page 69).
As a result of the effort to maintain doctrinal purity, man had once again turned to the ‘arm of the flesh’, the elevation of human authority. Thus the abuse of authority by power hungry men decimated the true Church of God.
Is this not reminiscent of God's people in the OT who sought a visible head – a king around whom to rally and to whom they looked for direction? Sadly they had rejected God’s invisible rule for a visible earthly ruler. God warned them of the burden a human king would bring and the limitations he would place on their freedom, but they persisted. The same lack of faith displayed in the Jews then, is seen today in people who continue to look for some ‘visible centre of unity’ rather than be content with a faith focused on the invisible headship of Jesus Christ.
In the infant church, Christians were bound by their common faith, hope, and mutual love as members of the Christian family. They met together in their individual towns and villages as free individuals and communities, not dominated by any central authority. However, within fifty years of the Apostles things had changed radically.
In a relatively short period of time, calls for loyalty and submission to a visible authority had increased to such a degree that the overseer's were instructed that it was their work to: -
"Order things properly and that of the brethren to submit, and not to disobey. Therefore submitting, they shall be saved". The same instruction went on, "whoever disobeys your orders disobeys Christ" (The Clemintine Homilies, Homily 11 Chapter 66 &70).
This kind of reasoning, that the presiding overseer represented Christ, and therefore whatever he instructed should be taken as though it came from Christ, created a severe stranglehold over a congregation. In many cases such leaders were not ‘examples to the flock’ and did not display the humility of mind and servitude of spirit demanded of an under - shepherd of Christ's flock.
Many people today, as in the past, accept without question that submission to a religious leader is identical with submission to Christ Himself. This has resulted in the removal of freedom of conscience and of a sense of personal responsibility before God. In such a situation the need for testing all teaching, for arriving at an individual conviction of truth, and exercising ones conscience, is discouraged in favour of an unquestioned submission to a constituted human authority.
The ultimate destiny of such a drift from God's intended order, towards a structure based on human authority, removed the church from its original form – that of a simple brotherhood, united by a common faith and mutual love – to a religious institution with defined boundaries, beyond which there was, ultimately, no salvation.
It was by these means, that the teaching of the Bible – that salvation is a gift of God, appropriated by faith in the sacrificial death of Jesus on the cross – was added to, enlarged upon and extended beyond its bounds. No one could be saved, it was now said, if they were not within the ‘Church Organisation’ and subject to a Bishop or overseer. Even Augustine, while recognised as the greatest Christian of his age, taught that there was no salvation outside the visible Catholic Church!
The reason it is important to grasp these lessons from history, particularly at this present time, is because in many places, God in His grace in restoring the pattern of the New Testament.
Many small groups today are not attached to any form of central authority, but are operating within the principals of mutual faith and love, in submission to the rule of Christ. However this pattern of fellowship and interaction is not an innovation or a departure: it is the clear picture painted for us vividly in the book of the Acts. And ‘the Lord added to their number daily those who were being saved (Acts 2:47).
[Ed note: See section Small churches and House churches]
CHAPTER 3 - BORN IN PERSECUTION
T he infant church was a church born in the fire of unmentionable suffering. Persecution in these early days came from both the Jews and the pagan nations amongst whom these Christians had been scattered. Despite the fact that this persecution lasted some 200 years, the church grew mightily. Historians estimate that the early churches mentioned in the book of Acts became very large with individual membership in some cases being in the region of between 25,000 and 50,000.
These great churches had of necessity many elders (Acts 20:17) but as we noted earlier, some of these began to assume an authority not given them by Christ. Some began to claim authority over some smaller churches. The ultimate expression of this departure from the independence of the local church was the creation of a super church.
During the first three centuries of church history 3 significant facts dominate,
1. The separateness and independence of the churches
2. The practical application of the priesthood of all believers
3. The baptism of believers only
In AD312 an incident of monumental significance took place. The then emperor of the Roman Empire, Constantine, had a 'conversion' experience, as a result of which full toleration was granted to the Christian faith. Thus the Christian faith was adopted by the Roman Empire. Christianity now enjoyed complete freedom throughout the Roman world. Although this had distinct advantages and proved of immense blessing it also had disadvantages, particularly during the generations that followed.
One church historian records, "Constantine became more vain and self complacent. He himself liked to be arrayed in splendid robes. It is not surprising, therefore to find him presenting the Bishop of Jerusalem with a set which vied in splendour with the best vestments of the pagan high priest".
This was the first instance of the use of vestments in the Christian Church. Socrates tells us that by the end of the fourth century, bishops were discussing the propriety of different colours of robes. When mass came to be celebrated the custom grew up of using special clothes known as mass vestments, some for high mass and some for low.
As a result of this situation the church became more and more embroiled in the affairs of state. A spirit of arrogance began to afflict the clergy and a hierarchy was formed. For a time Constantine himself was enthroned as 'head' of the church. Christ was effectively dethroned.
Between 300AD and 500AD the hierarchy set in place by Constantine, rapidly developed into what is now known as the Catholic Church. Joined to the state, this new church was a formidable force, which quickly became a legislative power, amending or annulling old laws and enacting new ones.
One of the first of its legislative acts was the establishing by law of infant baptism. This took place in 416AD. Ten years later history entered the period known as the 'Dark Ages'. Of that period one historian records: "From now on for a decade of centuries, the trail of loyal Christianity is washed away in its own blood". (The Trail of Blood, J. M. Carrol, Page 26) To stand against the tide of error in these years meant certain death.
Unimaginable though it may seem, it is estimated that fifty million people died of persecution during these 1,200 dark years of history. Only eternity will reveal just how many Godly men, women and children were slain during these years.
Although history is clouded and in some cases coloured by the error of these years it is clear that God has always had His 'remnant'. Both within the established churches and outside there were those who stood out for truth and righteousness. A group, which, through these centuries, appears to have borne the brunt of much persecution, although known by the names of their various leaders, were later referred to as Anabaptists (re-baptizers). This name originated with those who viewed anyone rejecting Catholic baptism as guilty of re-baptizing.
In AD 413 an edict was issued by two eastern emperors, Theodosius and Honorius which read: "If any minister of the Christian church is found guilty of having rebaptised any one, he, together with the person rebaptised, provided the latter is proved to be of such an age as to understand the crime, shall be put to death." (Martyrs Mirror, Thieleman J. van Braght, Page 198).
Such groups simply held, as many today, that baptism is for believers only. They rejected the baptism of infants and the doctrine of baptismal regeneration, which went with it.
Much popular church history overlooks these facts and highlights the 'Reformation' as the rebirth of biblical Christianity. This is not the case as God has had his true believing people in every generation.
Without seeking to undermine the sacrifice of the popular reformers such as Luther and others it is also clear from an unbiased examination of history that many of the great 'reformers' will remain hidden until revealed in the light of eternity, as will the millions of believers who, throughout the preceding centuries, stood firmly on God's truth, and paid the ultimate sacrifice.
What we want to highlight at this point is that both preceding and following the 'Dark Ages' there were Christian groups who maintained an independent witness separate from the Catholic Church. These were independent churches holding to the New Testament pattern of life and government. However, as we already stated, these groups bore the brunt of the severe persecution experienced throughout these terrible years.
Throughout the reformation, which colours most of our history books, these groups supported the struggle for change while maintaining their independence and distinctive witness to bible truth. The ultimate tragedy is, that following the reformation, the birth of the Lutheran Church led by Luther himself, and the Presbyterian church led by John Calvin, instead of a lessening of persecution, such groups found that the very people they had supported in their struggle for change, became their most bitter persecutors.
Luther and Zwingli who initially made a stand against the error of the Catholic Church later softened their attitude. The popular reformation became as much a political movement as it had been a spiritual one. The churches formed out of the Reformation became as much a part of the state apparatus as the Catholic Church before it.
Both Luther and Zwingli encouraged and approved of the use of torture and the murder of those who opposed them. Many historians past and present defend their actions as being 'due to the cruelty of the age'. This would perhaps be understandable if all Christians engaged in such behaviour, but an examination of the facts of history show clearly that this was not the case. Sebastian Franck (not an Anabaptist) wrote: -
"The Anabaptists.... taught nothing but faith love and the cross. They showed themselves humble, patient under much suffering; they break bread with one another as an evidence of unity and love. They helped each other faithfully and called each other brothers. They died as martyrs, patiently and humbly enduring all persecution."
(The Recovery of the Anabaptist Vision, Page 46).
In 1560, nineteen years after Calvin had first founded an organisation in Geneva, John Knox a follower of Calvin, founded the first Presbyterian Church in Scotland. Thirty-two years later, in 1592, this church became the State Church of Scotland.
J. M. Carroll notes in the book we have already quoted: "Both the Lutheran and the Presbyterian Churches brought out of their Catholic Mother many of her evils, among them her idea of a state Church. They both soon became Established Churches. Both were soon in the persecuting business, falling little, if any, short of their Catholic mother". The history of the atrocities committed by supposed Christians against other Christians beggars belief.
The State Church has never given up her right and authority as the legally established and true Church of Scotland. Even today we hear some of its ministers and preachers citing an area as 'my parish' and defending it against any Christian influence, which is not to their taste. However, such a right is not divinely but state given. Although freedom of religion is now established by law one sometimes wonders if the attitude of Luther and Zwingli still lingers on in some quarters. The abuse of authority still prevails.
The sad fact today is simply that we have not learned from history. The persecution of believers by those who claim to be Christian still continues. Although in this country we are not forced to lay down our lives in our stand for the truth we discover a more subtle form of persecution exists, even today.
CHAPTER 4 - PURITANS AND INDEPENDANTS
In our last three chapters we have conducted a whirlwind tour through the history of the Church, until the time of the reformation. We have seen again and again that the abuse of authority has corrupted the visible church. God's true believing people in every generation have to a greater or lesser degree suffered persecution.
In our own land we have seen the establishment of state churches on both sides of the border.
One of the groups we often hear referred to today be the Puritans. Who were they? Ernest Pickering in his book 'Biblical Separation' informs us that "Puritanism was a movement that begun within the Church of England during the reign of Elizabeth I (1558 - 1603)". A longing arose among some to reform the Church of England, the state church of the land. Bible study was encouraged, and regular biblical preaching was practised.
As the Scriptures were perused, the dissatisfaction with some of the forms and ecclesiastical trappings of Anglicanism grew greater. There was controversy over the rituals of the church. Some called such items as vestments "the trappings of popery". Actually, the name 'Puritan' denoted a desire to purify the existing church and a commitment to purity of personal living as would befit a child of God. As the movement took hold, more and more issues came into focus – the supremacy of scriptures over human authority; the freedom of the church from the state; and the proper nature of church government.
Shortly after a conference called by King James I in January 1604 a royal proclamation demanded that the Puritans conformed in totality to the order of the Church of England and to the king's supremacy. One thousand five hundred clergymen refused to sign. While some of these were shielded by sympathetic bishops 300 were ousted and others imprisoned.
In 1620 a group we know as the Pilgrim Fathers, despairing of ever finding religious liberty set sail for the new world in the Mayflower.
In 1662 a demand was made amongst Protestants for the complete acceptance of the Anglican prayer book. It is recorded that no less than 2000 Presbyterian, independent, and Baptist ministers resigned their living.
In Scotland similar persecution was faced, in the face of enforced episcopacy upon the Church by Charles II. It is estimated that no less than seventeen thousand suffered in one way or another - for conscience sake. These were the days of the heroic Covenanters. By 1690, however, due to the Revolution Settlement, the Presbyterian Church was again established.
In 1722 Count Zinzendorf allowed a group of Moravian Brethren (Anabaptists) to settle on his estate as Herrnhut in Saxony, now East Germany. This group became the pioneers of modern missionary enterprise. It was under the witness of men from this group in 1736 that the famed John Wesley was converted.
This was a generation that saw, under the power of the Holy Spirit, a great evangelical revival. Men, who are now household names, were used of God during that time - John and Charles Wesley in England, Jonathan Edward's in America, and George Whitfield in both these continents as well as here in Scotland. Revival swept throughout every part of the British Isles.
This revival came during a time of much evil and false teaching in the Church. As in our day many of the leaders in the Church were denying the doctrines of salvation and the atoning death of Jesus. Spiritual paralyses affected every part of the Church.
In Scotland the similarity between these days and our own are quite striking. A M Renwick, a former Professor of Church History at the Free Church College, observes in relation to these times: "In Scotland the dead hand of Moderatism had a serious effect upon the Church. In 1733 Ebenezer Erskine and three others were driven from the Church of Scotland because of their opposition to the Patronage Act of 1712 under which patrons could nominate ministers contrary to the will of the people. Their vigorous evangelicalism could not tolerate such a situation and they founded the Secession Church". (It was as a result of the same issue 110 years later in 1843 that 478 ministers left the Church of Scotland to form the Free Church)
The irony is that 28 years later God sent His Spirit in revival power, not to the Secession Church, but to the Church of Scotland. This occurred at Cambuslang, near Glasgow in 1740.
Although the Secession Church stood for truth it is both sad and solemn to note that very quickly a cold gracelessness soon took hold in their midst. They stood out against the revival at Cambuslang and against God's instrument George Whitfield, even organising a fast against the work (See - The Cambuslang Revival, C R Fawcett, Banner of Truth)
Fawcett notes in his book that although initially free from sectarianism, within 12 months the Seceeders had changed from stressing free communion between God's people to an exclusive stand regarding fellowship. The way in which they vilified Whitfield in particular defies all reason. Ironically it was they who initially invited Whitfield to Scotland!
Whitfield's response to this vilification should be an example to all of us when we face this form of persecution - he refused to retaliate. Writing to a friend on the 24th February 1742 he states: "What a pity that we should fall out on the way to heaven" (George Whitfield Works. I p363) and writing two days later on 26th February, to a friend in New York he states: "How can I act consistently, unless I receive and love all the children of God Messrs Wesley though we widely differ in a certain point." (Ibid I p372)
CHAPTER 5 - THE LIBERAL CHURCH
W e now come to a development of tragic significance in the life of the Church – the rise and growth of Liberalism (modernism). This corruption was already at work during the time of the Puritans. It was and is system, opposed to the Biblical Christianity, for which the Puritans stood.
Up until this time, although the Bible had, on many occasions, been twisted and misused, it was accepted as trustworthy and the revelation of God. During the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries this view was challenged as never before. John Locke (1632-1704) laid the foundation for the rejection of the miraculous element of the Christian faith. Human reason he argued must be satisfied at all costs. Francois Marie Arouet (1694-1788) whom we know as Voltaire rejected the unique origin of the Christian faith. Christianity was just one of many world religions, no better no worse, was his argument. Immanuel Kant 1724-1804 taught that God couldn't be truly known. He also rejected the supernatural and emphasised man's ability. Friedrich Schliermacher (1768-1834) emphasised religious experience. It did not matter if one rejected the doctrines of the Bible, as long as you loved God.
The reason it is important to note these facts is simply that these are the views that many of our present day theologians and ministers have imbibed. Such people reject the Bible as divinely inspired and authoritative. They reject the uniqueness of the person of Jesus Christ and the miracles he performed, etc. The net result of such doctrine is to destroy the validity of the Christian faith.
The second half of the nineteenth century saw these and other destructive tendencies insidiously creep into the Church. The outward face of the Church did not change immediately but slowly these religious liberals began to speak more openly. For the believing people of God in many Churches, the age-old question arose again, should we stay in or should we get out?
CHAPTER 6 - THE DRIVE FOR UNITY
In the last four chapters we have traced the history of the church from the times of the Apostles through to end of the nineteenth century. We have discovered that again and again the corruption and abuse of authority has resulted in the persecution of the true Church of Jesus Christ by others calling themselves 'Christian'. We have also seen the victorious power of Truth and Love, even in the face of persecution and martyrdom.
Sadly, we have also seen that Truth, when not mixed with Love, can lead to a cold orthodoxy, the consequences of which can be disastrous. It also became very clear that to stand for the Truth, even in Love, very often bears an expensive price tag.
As we enter the twentieth century we discover that the corrupting influence of liberalism was in its heyday. The effect of Darwin's theory of evolution led millions to believe that progress was inevitable. However A. M. Renwick describes the true situation of the church in the book we have quoted several times: -
"But in general it may be said that congregations lacked the fire which comes from a personal baptism of the Holy Spirit." (p203).
However in His grace, God again sent His Spirit in revival power. Wales appears to have been the first area to know this 'baptism' in 1904. The effects of this revival were widespread and came shortly before similar movements of God's Spirit in other parts of the world. Although it is beyond the scope of this study to examine this, or other revival movements which subsequently took place in other parts of the land, it is instructive to listen to the testimony of one who, at 17 years of age was an eyewitness to the events surrounding the Welsh revival: -
"Revival spread rapidly through the whole town (Rhios, Wales) until every Church was affected. The Methodists, Congregationalists, Salvation Army, the Church of England and Baptists were all caught up in the great wave of revival so that denominationalism disappeared and you could enter any Church in the town and find crowds of people at prayer; there was great harmony in the town." (Powell Parry: Recorded Interview 1974).
Sadly the effects of this and other great revivals at the beginning of the century are all but gone. In many places the church has sought to replace the unity brought about as a result of the work of the Spirit of God, by a false unity called Ecumenism. In 1948 the world council of churches was founded. It was hailed as a "reversal of the trend which began at the reformation".
Many see this as a movement towards a great world church, including the Roman Catholic Church, with the pope at its head. Interestingly many who are now leaving Protestant denominations because of their rejection of fundamental biblical truth, are going over to the Catholic Church. Others see this corrupted unity as the forerunner to an apostate world religion, which will, ultimately, herald the Anti-Christ as its leader.
One of the greatest Christian leaders of this century and one who did more to promote true Christian Unity than most realise, Dr Martin Lloyd-Jones, noted in this regard: -
"Spiritual power is not something which belongs to the world of mathematics, and so if we united all the denominations and added all the powers which each has together, even that would not create spiritual life. The burial of many bodies in the same cemetery does not lead to resurrection. Life is more important than unity." (DMLJ Vol2: Murray, Banner of Truth)
The trend of this false ecumenism today has gone far beyond that seen by DMLJ. Not only is there a drive towards the linking together of churches and denominations in the Christian tradition, but also in recent days, events aimed at unity between all the world religions have taken place, even here in Scotland. This drive towards a false unity abounds on every hand. We must pray for wisdom and discernment in order to recognise the false from the true and to be able to stand against this tide of false ecumenism, from which the apostate church of the last day may well emerge.
This drive towards ecumenical unity comes at a time of general decline in all the mainline denominations. It is estimated that in many areas people are leaving their churches in vast numbers, under an increasing belief that the church, as they perceive it, is irrelevant to life at the end of the twentieth century.
While the views and opinions of lesser mortals are brushed aside as irrelevant, it is significant that a number of the leaders in evangelical circles are looking seriously at the mission and direction of the church.
Interestingly DMLJ himself was not entirely complementary as he examined the situation pertaining in the majority of evangelical churches. After a period of illness, which resulted in his being a listener instead of a preacher he stated: -
"My general impression is that most of our services are terribly depressing! I am amazed people still go to church; most that go are female and over the age of forty. The note missing is "joy in the Holy Ghost." (DMLJ p603)
In his book on Ephesians, DMLJ defines how our Church services should be: -
"Our coming together in public worship should be a foretaste of heaven.... Public worship should be a gathering of the first fruits, a sampling of what is to be our lot in heaven." (Vol. 1 p308).
While in many other countries the Church is experiencing the kind of life described by DMLJ it appears true to say that in the West in general and in our own country in particular this is not the case. The State Church teeters on the brink of outright apostasy while other churches and denominations have already passed that point. Even within groups regarded as evangelical the cold hand of formalism grips gatherings for worship and preaching.
Despite the fact that these things are true God is still at work, often through small groups, and even in places where we would not expect.
There are also positive signs amidst the general darkness. An increasing number of the Lord's people are expressing a burden to pray together. In his book 'Revival' Brian H Edwards states (p77): -
"The first hint of revival is frequently a stirring in the life of prayer in the church."
While we long and pray for revival there is an increasing opinion amongst evangelical Christian leaders that there is a pressing need for a new reformation. Interestingly in Psalm 85 the psalmist prays for RESTORATION before he prays for REVIVAL. The fear is that if we do experience revival, many of the churches, in their present state, would be inadequate for the task of discipling new converts.
CHAPTER 7 - WHAT IS THE CHURCH ANYWAY?
There are many misconceptions currently circulating regarding the nature, purpose and mission of the church at the end of the twentieth century. In previous chapters we have seen some of the historical reasons for these. In our final chapter we want to summarise some of the common beliefs regarding the church and examine them in the light of what the bible teaches.
Common belief: The church is the building in which we meet to worship!
Biblical view: There are no references in the New Testament in which the word CHURCH is used in this way.
Common belief: The church is our denomination / organisation!
Biblical view: Again the New Testament never describes the CHURCH in this way. In relation to some of the gatherings of believers in the New Testament, such as the Church in Corinth no rigid organisation is mentioned. Someone has said "The New Testament church had form and order but it was the order of an organism rather than the order of an organisation".
"What then is the church?"
The CHURCH is the word used in the bible to describe the people of God. The word comes from the Greek word Ekklesia'. Originally the word was used to describe a gathering of citizens called out from their homes into some public place (See Acts 19:39). In our bibles the word 'Assembly' is also used, hence the term 'Brethren Assembly' etc. A Puritan definition ran like this: "A company of the faithful called and gathered out of the world by the preaching of the gospel".
"Are you sure it's not an organisation?"
The church is described as the body of Christ (Romans 12:4, 1Cor. 12:12). Jesus in John 15 also describes it as branches in a vine. Both of these descriptions indicate that it is an organism rather than an organisation. This is so often forgotten in today's church where high finance, slick business practices and charismatic leaders are the order of the day. Ministers are often looked upon as managers running small departments of a large organisation, which is strictly, governed by a faceless few from a distant headquarters. The people are mere customers attracted by any and every means to warm the pew and pay their dues.
In stark contrast the picture of the New Testament church is of a vibrant body pulsating with life. Each member of the body plays a vital and active role, serving the Lord Christ (Col. 3: 24). In Eph. 1 22-23 the apostle Paul reminds us that the head of this unique body is Christ. He and He alone has authority to direct His body - the church. It is He who gives it life, vigour, power and direction.
The church, as well as being described as the body of Christ, is referred to as His BRIDE (John 3:29, Eph. 5: 25, Rev. 21: 2). It is taken for granted that a bride is in love with her bridegroom. This is no less so in relation to the church with her heavenly bridegroom. This metaphor pre supposes that we have fallen in love with Jesus.
The Apostle Paul describes the CHURCH as "them which are sanctified in Christ Jesus, called to be saints with all that in every place call upon the name of Jesus Christ our Lord" (1 Cor. 2:2).
The church (the true people of God) is also described as a BUILDING/TEMPLE (Eph. 2: 20-22, 1Cor. 3: 10-16, 1 Pet. 2:5), and the PILLAR and FOUNDATION OF THE TRUTH (1Tim. 3: 15).
"When is a church not a church?"
This is a question which many are asking today particularly in the light of recent trends within various denominations. However, if we hold to the biblical understanding of THE CHURCH, we are forced to conclude that at many so-called 'CHURCH WORSHIP SERVICES' there are a large numbers of 'church members' in the gathering who do not belong to the true CHURCH while there are others who do.
The extent to which this situation has now grown was probably never envisaged in New Testament times, for to belong to the CHURCH in these days often meant persecution, suffering and even death. You did not dare join with such people unless your reasons were genuine! Today however, many attach themselves to groups bearing the title CHURCH because it is the socially acceptable thing to do. In many places therefore we have the abnormal situation where members of the true CHURCH are found within an organisation bearing the title CHURCH when the majority of members within the organisation are counterfeit.
John Knox the great Scottish reformer held that to constitute a true CHURCH three marks must be present: -
1. The true preaching of the word of God
2. The proper administration of the sacraments
3. Exercise of proper discipline
One wonders if Knox were alive today, how many groups who bear the name CHURCH would he recognise as being true, in the light of his definition.
"Must the church not have a more modern approach?"
The message of the church must always be relevant to the society in which it exists. However, it appears that in order to try and appeal to as wide an audience as possible some have moved far beyond the aim of relevance. Others hold with a death like grip to traditions and forms of communication, which may have been effective several generations ago but are now only understood by a select few.
The sermons of the early church lacked the gimmicks and smart persuasive construction, which are so desirable today. There was no sensationalism or mass advertising yet the church grew numerically and spiritually.
The epistles of the New Testament were written to ordinary people. They were expected to understand them and by all accounts did. They found them relevant and helpful, yet so many scholars today strain to grasp their meaning while others tell the common man that they cannot be understood other than through the expounding of some great preacher or teacher.
The missing link today is the illumination, work and power of the Holy Spirit. Without Him all our efforts and agendas will be in vain.
"Why place so much emphasis on the Holy Spirit?"
The Holy Spirit is God. It is God the Holy Spirit who equips and empowers HIS CHURCH. It is He who gives gifts in order that the church is up built and effective in evangelism. The early Christians had no formal programme but by waiting and praying they received the direction and power of the Holy Spirit. When they went out it was the operation of the Holy Spirit that empowered their preaching and testimony.
"What is the difference between a formal and informal church service?"
If individual believers make up THE CHURCH then any time they meet together they constitute THE CHURCH. Paul writhing to the Colossians refers to a man called Nymphas in whose house THE CHURCH met (Col. 4:15). The CHURCH was no less THE CHURCH because it met in a house. We sometimes split our gatherings into formal and informal. At one, a set of rules and regulations may apply, while at the other they do not. There does not appear to be any scriptural precedence for our acting in this way.
"What is hindering God's blessing on today's church?"
The Rev. Murdo Gordon, after a lifelong ministry, highlights four reasons in his little book 'The Church to which we belong' (p106): -
1. The church lacks a genuine expectation of revival
2. The modern church is infected with error
3. The churches in general has become formalistic and ritualistic
4. Many churches are totally dependent for success on good organisation and a bright programme
5. The modern church lays too much stress on the cultural and educational
All of these conclusions merit our attention. However, each of us must realise that we are part of THE CHURCH. It is our responsibility, where we detect any of these things in our own company or gathering, to address the issues and seek under God to adjust our lives, and if necessary our CHURCH gatherings, accordingly.
A Final word!
No doubt there are many other questions, which could be addressed. However, we must issue a final word of warning.
We will never find the perfect church grouping or gathering here on earth. The teaching of Jesus indicates that there will always be tares amongst the wheat. But there are certain standards that THE CHURCH must always maintain if it is to be found as a true and effective witness for Jesus Christ in its generation. One of the lessons we have learned in this study is that each one of us is personally responsible before God as to how, where and when we meet as a testimony with THE CHURCH of God in maintaining its witness in the communities God has placed us.
Steve Taylor is a former police officer living on Skye where he has co-lead the Excel Church in Portree since its inception. He is a member of the editorial board of Christians Together.
Steve is author of a history of how God worked on the Island of Skye in the 19th and early-20th centuries. Skye Revivals covers 'the shattering events that occurred in Skye between 1800 and 1860, when the religious, social and educational face fo the Island was transformed as a result of spiritual awakening.'
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