By Roy B. Blizzard
Have you ever stopped and come to grips with how bad the spiritual situation is in the world today? It is frightening when we give ourselves to some serious thought and realize how far we have digressed from what was intended to our present state. We read of a united Church in the New Testament – a Church that was alive, dynamic, and moving out in a dimension of power and authority.
Today, however, we see over 400 warring Protestant denominations, Catholics, and many others who all use the same Bible as a foundation for their beliefs. Each one of these groups is calling out, “We have the way” or, “Lo, here is Christ.” The result of all these splits, feuds, and divisions is that most of us are running around in some kind of fog, bewildered, and asking essentially the same question that Pilate asked 2,000 years ago: “What is truth?.”
It is almost inconceivable for us to believe that such a thing has happened. But, it really has. What is of the utmost importance now is “What are we going to do about it?” First, we must find out how it happened, when it happened, with whom it happened, and why it happened. This requires study because we are dealing with factual history which can be substantiated by historical evidences. We can trace the factionalization of the Church from the very beginning, down to the present day. We can name the individuals involved, the dates, when it started, why it started, how it started, and what the end results were.
The digression actually started in the latter part, of the 1st century of the present era. It was hinted at in the writings of the Apostle John in I, II, and III John, and in the Book of Revelation. As the Gentiles came into the Church, a problem developed that most have never noticed. Remember, Jesus was a Jew. The Apostles were all Jews. The scriptures from which Jesus taught were Jewish. Every writer of the New Testament was Jewish, with the possible exception of Luke, who many believe was a proselyte. We are dealing with Hebrew people, Hebrew words, and a Hebrew culture which defines the meanings of the words of the Bible.
Somewhere between 90 to 96 of the present era, after the death of the last Apostle, John, we have a head-on collision as the Hebrew words of the Bible are assigned new meanings by the gentile church leaders who are products of the Greek/Roman culture. The leadership of the Church shifted from Jerusalem to Antioch and finally, Rome. By 311 CE when Constantine, the Emperor of Rome, issued the Edict of Toleration, the spiritual situation was already critical. Just think of it, Constantine, head of the greatest empire on the face of the earth at that time, became a Christian. Anything that was good enough for the Emperor was good enough for the subjects, so, Constantine began to award medals, prizes, and money to those who converted to Christianity. Would it surprise you to know that most who converted did so for the medals, prizes, and money?
Constantine came from a pagan background and did not have the foggiest idea about spiritual matters. The people who converted came from pagan backgrounds and had nothing to which they could relate the teachings of the Bible. As they encountered these foreign terms such as “baptism,” “Lord’s Supper,” “repentance,” “Sabbath,” etc., they took certain concepts from paganism and simply carried them over into the structure of the Church, assigning them a Christian meaning. For example, how did imagery get within the structure of the Church? How many of you have ever seen a picture or a statue of the Virgin Mary with the baby Jesus in her arms? Did you ever wonder where this image came from? If you would sometime go to Israel with me, I would take you to Ashkelon, one of the cities of the Philistines, and I would show you a statue of Isis, the Egyptian deity, holding the child-god Horis in her arms. These representations were from centuries before Jesus, but it looks just like a statue you might expect to see of Mary and the baby Jesus. If I did not tell you any different you would think that is exactly who it is. And, this is not an isolated example. I don’t know how this fits into your theology, but I would not like to be taught that a picture or statue of a pagan god holding a baby god is supposed to be Mary and Jesus.
Another pagan concept that found its way into the Church was Saturnalia. You probably have never heard of it, but let me describe it to you and see if it doesn’t ring a bell. It was a happy period when freedom and equality reigned. Violence and oppression were unknown during this celebration. During this period, all public business ceased. Masters and slaves changed places. This was a time of feasting, merry-making, and exchanging of gifts. This festival was celebrated from about December 17th until the 23rd. (I hope it doesn’t shock you to learn that Jesus wasn’t born on December 25th.) There is not one verse in the Bible about Christmas. Where did we get the word “Easter”? Did you ever hear of the Ashtaroth, the fertility goddesses mentioned in the Bible? The Hellenization of Ashtaroth Ishtar is transliterated into English as Easter. Have you ever wondered about the Easter egg and the Easter bunny and all of the other concepts and ideas connected to this festival? Where did they come from? Would it surprise you to find out that this is another pagan custom that was brought into the Church? By the way, the only place the word “Easter” is found in the Bible is in Acts 12:4, and it can only be found in the King James Version or versions based on it. When we look at the Greek text we see the word pascha, which is a Greek transliteration of the Hebrew word pesakh, which should be translated as “Passover”. If you want to read about Ashteroth and get God’s view on the subject, read Judges 2:13; 10:6; I Samuel 7:3-4; and 12:10.
From this quagmire of pagan beliefs, with little or no understanding of biblical truths, emerged a religious organization that ultimately resulted (sometime around the middle of the 7th century) in the Roman Catholic Church. In CE 1050 the first major factionalization resulted in a split between the church to the east and the church to the west that became known as the Greek Orthodox Catholic Church. These two organizations continued until 1517, when Martin Luther, a Roman Catholic priest, became disgusted with the abuses and the heresy in the church, and he nailed his 95 theses to the door of the Castle Church in Wittenberg, Germany. He had no intention of starting a new church, but only wanted to halt the corruption within the church. His primary target was the misuse of indulgences (pardon for some of the penalty of sin). An example of this can be seen in the story about Tetzel, a Dominican monk. Tetzel was a high-pressure salesman who was peddling indulgences in an unusually scandalous manner. In his sales pitch he said, “The moment you hear your money drop into the box the soul of your mother will jump out of purgatory.” It was this kind of abuse that prompted Luther to speak out. As a result of his actions, he was excommunicated.
In 1534, Henry the VIII, King of England, had a small problem: how to get rid of his wife so he could marry another. In order to do that, he had to get an annulment of his first marriage from the Pope. The Pope wouldn't give it, so Henry severed all ties with the Roman Catholic Church and refused to recognize the authority of the Pope. This marked the beginning of the Anglican Church in England, which was essentially structured along the lines of the Roman Catholic Church. The Anglican Church remains as the state church of England. From the Anglican Church we have the Episcopalian Church, and then the Methodist Episcopal, followed by the Methodist Church with John Wesley.
All of the various denominations have come forth from the Protestant Reformation which began with Martin Luther in 1534. We can trace their development. We know the names of the individuals who were involved: their basic doctrines, why they thought what they thought and believed what they believed. It is all a matter of documented, recorded fact. Have you ever wondered why there is a Northern Baptist and a Southern Baptist Church? They were united until May 1845, when the Southern Baptist Convention was organized. The acting board of foreign missions of the Baptists was located in Boston and was heavily influenced by the abolition movement. There was bitter debate among the board members over the issue of slavery. In the early 1840’s it became evident that this board would not accept slave holders as missionaries. The question of missionaries and missionary money was the immediate cause of the split.
The end result of all these various arguments and debates is over 400 different denominations with each one saying, “Lo, here’s Christ.” This has created utter confusion. As unbelievable as it might seem, there has never been an attempt on the part of religious leaders to go back behind Protestantism, back of Catholicism and Constantine, and go all the way back to our historical roots in the 1st century. I don’t know about you, but I am not protesting anything, except ignorance. So, I am not interested in being a Protestant. I am not interested in being a Catholic. I want to be part of a living, dynamic, organism that operates in power and with meaning.
I want to emphasize something before you misunderstand what I am talking about. Restoration is never going to be accomplished on a denominational level. It can only happen on an individual basis. If you are in the Baptist, Methodist, Presbyterian, Church of Christ, or whatever denomination, restoration can happen. It will happen as there is an increased hunger and desire on the part of God’s people for true factual information. It will happen as individuals begin to ask questions about their religious beliefs and test them against linguistic, cultural, and historical facts. The good news is that it is probably already happening to you.
We are beginning to see individuals, groups, and even congregations coming together with the goal of becoming a living, dynamic, organism as described in the Biblical text. In order to do this, we have to lay aside all of our denominational concepts and go back of Protestantism, back of Catholicism, back of gentile theology, right back to the historical situation in the 1st century. There, we find a Jewish body of believers operating in a dimension unknown in our churches today. To put it simply, it is time that we begin doing Bible things in Bible ways, and in order to do that we must come to grips with the fact that this 1st century Jewish body of believers was structured on the exact pattern of the 1st century synagogue.
For example, we see Jesus walking on the shore of the Sea of Galilee and he says to Peter, James, and John, “Come, follow me and I’ll make you fishers of men.” He selects them and others as his twelve “apostles.” Where did he get that idea? Was it just some brilliant stroke of genius that he came up with as the divine son of God? What was an apostle, and are there supposed to be apostles in the Church today?
In the 6th chapter of Acts, the believers deem it necessary to select out from among them the seven men who are to be called deacons. Where did they get that idea? Was this another brilliant stroke of religious genius? Was it divine inspiration (By the way, did you know why Nicolas is called a proselyte and not a Christian?) What is a deacon and what is he or she supposed to be doing? We just know that they are supposed to serve on the board, pass the offering plate, and help pass out the Lord’s Supper. But what did the deacons of that Jewish body of believers do?
The Apostle Paul admonishes Timothy to go around and ordain elders in every congregation. Where did elders come from and what were they supposed to do? We see in the Bible that there are elders, pastors, presbyters, bishops, overseers, and rulers. The sad fact is that we just do not even know who these various functionaries are, much less what they are supposed to be doing.
What about the synagogue? Do you know anything about it? How was it organized? Did you know there was a group in the synagogue who were called elders, and another group called deacons? They also had apostles and teachers. Would it come as a surprise to you to find out that there is not a single thing that the early fellowship of believers did that was original with them, that they had not done before? To learn the answers to these and other questions, we are re-recording two of our series, “Historical Roots” and “The Organizational Structure of the First Century Community of God”, which will be available for you soon in Audio CD’s.