As we discuss in other studies, the early church was composed of autonomous congregations, each under the oversight of a plurality of men known as elders, bishops, pastors or presbyters. The simple worship consisted of preaching and teaching, singing, praying, giving and partaking of the Lord's Supper. There was no liturgy. There was no instrumental music. Women did not assume leadership roles. Baptism was solely in the form of immersion of adult believers for the forgiveness of sins. Christians stood against divorce, abortion and homosexuality. But, unfortunately, things changed over the course of the centuries.
Christianity had long been split into several pieces by the fifteenth century. One centered in Rome, while a second looked to Constantinople as its head. Others existed in Africa and in the Orient. The fall of Constantinople to the Muslims in 1453 sent scholars fleeing to the west. With them they took what remained of the knowledge of ancient empires. It is not by accident that the following century saw an outburst of exploration, scientific discovery and artistic creation. Everything from the Renaissance and the invention of movable type to the discovery of America by Columbus can be tied in some way to the fall of Constantinople.
The scholars took with them not only copies of the Bible in the original languages, but also the knowledge to read them. For the first time, people in western Europe could see what the Bible really said.
In about 1520, Zwingli broke away from the Catholic church. In 1522 the "Swiss Brethren" or Anabaptist group was formed. From this group came the Mennonites, started by Menno Simons in 1525, and the Hutterites, founded by Jacob Hutter in 1529.
Meanwhile, in 1521, Martin Luther established his group. John Calvin left the Catholic church to found the Presbyterian church in 1533. Le Fevre split from them to create the Huguenots.
In 1534 the Anglican Church broke away from Rome. From them came Robert Brown and the Puritans in 1566, as well as John Wesley and the Methodists in 1744. From the Puritans came John Smyth and the Baptists in 1609. George Fox and James Nailer left the same denomination to become Quakers.
Founding of these new groups has continued until the present time. In 1830 Joseph Smith established the Mormon church. 1863 saw the Whites and the 7th Day Adventists. The Salvation Army was born two years later. Mary Baker Eddy started the Christian Science group in 1879. Charles Russell began the Jehovah's Witness movement in 1884. The Nazarenes started in 1908; the Assemblies of God in 1914, and the Foursquare Gospel church in 1917.
The problem, though, is that changing a change always results in a change. In other words, what we need is not a reformation but a restoration. We don't need to change what exists. We need to abandon it and return to the simplicity of New Testament Christianity.
And what happened to that simple religion? Actually, it never quite went away. Dr. Hans Grimm has an interesting story to tell about the history of the church.
There were those, Grimm notes, who insisted on holding to the New Testament pattern while the majority followed man-made changes during the early centuries. Many were burned to death along with the heretics of the day. They were, after all, a threat to the powers that were. The survivors concealed themselves in remote areas of Arabia, in the Sinai Peninsula and in northern Africa. By the middle of the fourth century they had established missions in Western France and Spain. There are traces of their efforts in Britain as early as 422.
In the seventh century a Byzantine monk reported on a debate with a group incorrectly identified as "Paulicians."
"Only the New Testament," he noted, "was accepted among them as rule for faith and church practice; they rejected the worship of the Mother of God and of the saints, even of the great martyrs George and Sergius; they do not consecrate a special worship to the Archangels or to Elias, have no church feasts at all; each Sunday they assembled in places of prayer which are not worthy to be named thus, since they have neither altar nor wall for pictures of the saints, nor a place for keeping the holy vessels; they use neither incense nor chrism oil. They despise and scorn the baptism of the church and say that infants have no faith. They recognize neither the jurisdiction of the Patriarch at Constantinople nor of the Patriarch of Antioch and Jerusalem and have no respect for the schismatic church of the Armenians. They are proud of the fact that their churches are small and poor and that their evangelists live only from what sheltering believers give them voluntarily. They do no accept the false accusation that the heretic Paulus is said to have founded their sect, and say that they are not Paulicians, but Christians, and chosen of God" (Grimm, n.d., p. 21).
These followers of New Testament Christianity continued to be burned and beheaded for their beliefs. They were forced into coexistence with many heretical groups, which sometimes resulted in what Grimm describes as, "apostasy, division and weakening of the transmitted faith of the Apostles" (Grimm, n.d., p. 22).
Still, New Testament Christianity survived. It even thrived in many areas, including Bosnia, Herzegovina, Albania and Dalmatia. The last congregations in Herzegovina were destroyed in 1942 by the Nazis.
Some were labeled as followers of "Bogomilism." Others were branded as Catharists. This latter title was not entirely without compliment, since it meant "the Pure." Finally, in 1927, the Dictionary of Catholic Theology admitted that, "The accusations against the Catharists of the 11th century are precisely the same as those that were raised against the Christians throughout the Roman empire in the second century: immorality (and) ritual murder" (Grimm, n.d., p. 25).
New Testament Christianity also returned to Italy, where congregations of several thousand members existed in Milan, Florence and Ferrara.
A 200-year-old book proudly records the burning of some Italian heretics in 1147. What was their crime? They suggested that infants should not be baptized, since they were not able to believe. They said that ornate buildings were not needed to worship God. They taught that images should not be worshiped. They negated the liturgy and other traditions (Locatelli, 1779, p. 236).
Opposition took its toll, and the congregations began to disappear little by little. Hitler all but completed the job in the 1930s. Many New Testament Christians, including Hans Grimm, were herded into concentration camps for preaching the Gospel. Deaf in one ear and with crushed kidneys, Grimm survived to attempt a rebuilding of the brotherhood. In 1948 he was arrested by the Communists and imprisoned for four years. He moved to Western Germany following his release in 1952. Three years later he learned of American Christians who were following only the purity of the New Testament.
"The torch did not die out," Grimm wrote. "God had kindled it again and put it on a lamp-stand and it gives light for everybody in the house. This was the fulfillment of Christ's promise: "I am going to build my church, and the powers of death will never prevail against it" (Grimm, n.d., p. 42).
Many people today would affirm that it doesn't matter how we worship God, as long as we love each other and try to do what is right. This may be an appealing theory, but it is shattered by the Bible.
Nadab and Abihu knew that God had commanded the use of a certain kind of fire in the temple. But they decided it didn't matter. If you believe that God doesn't care how we worship Him, read the fate of Nadab and Abihu in Leviticus 10:1-3.
Korah knew that God had chosen to lead the Israelites through Moses. But Korah thought that didn't matter. Take a look at Numbers chapter 16 if you agree with Korah.
Achan knew that God had given specific instructions about the spoils from Jericho. But he decided it didn't matter. Read his story in Joshua chapter seven.
David knew that God had forbidden the taking of a census. He learned differently in the last chapter of 2 Samuel.
The Jews decided they could change their religion to suit themselves. It didn't matter what God had instructed.
"Then some Pharisees and scribes came to Jesus from Jerusalem, saying, 'Why do Your disciples transgress the tradition of the elders? For they do not wash their hands when they eat bread,'" Matthew 15:1-3 records.
"And He answered and said to them, 'And why do you yourselves transgress the commandment of God for the sake of your tradition?'"
"You hypocrites," Jesus cries out in verses 7-9, "rightly did Isaiah prophesy of you, saying, 'This people honors Me with their lips, but their heart is far away from Me. But in vain do they worship Me, teaching as doctrines the precepts of men.'"
Perhaps someone forgot to tell Jesus that it didn't matter.
Some of the early Christians thought it didn't matter. Read what Paul had to say to the churches in places such as Corinth and Galatia. Read what John relayed to them in the second and third chapters of Revelation.
Remember the question you asked yourself at the beginning of this series of studies? Why do you attend church where you do? Remember the possible answers? Is it because of tradition? You go where your parents went? Is it because of personal reasons? You and your spouse come from different religious backgrounds and you have worked out a compromise? You like the social atmosphere? You like the way the preacher talks? Or is it because you have examined the Bible carefully and have been convinced that you are going where they teach and practice only the Gospel truth?
Friends, traditions will only bind us to that which is not acceptable to God. Personal motives will only lead us down the wrong pathway. Only the truth will set us free.
Grimms, Hans (n.d.), Tradition and History of the Early Churches of Christ in Central Europe, trans. Schug, H.L. (Austin: Firm Foundation).
Locatelli, Luigi Antonio (1779), L'Eta' della Chiesa (Venice: Simone Occhi)