The Church at the End of the First Century

By Andy Sochor | Kentucky, USA

As we noticed in the previous article under this section, Jesus promised to build His church (Matthew 16:18) and it was established on the day of Pentecost following His death, burial, resurrection, and ascension into heaven (Acts 2). As Paul explained, the Lord’s church was “built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Christ Jesus Himself being the corner stone” (Ephesians 2:20).

The apostles played a vital role in the establishment and growth of the early church. They were the Lord’s “ambassadors” (2 Corinthians 5:20) – the official spokesman for the Lord to deliver His perfect and complete will to His people. In order to carry out this role, they were given the promise of the Holy Spirit who would “guide [them] into all the truth” (John 16:13) and “bring to [their] remembrance” everything Jesus said (John 14:26). The Spirit would “testify about [Jesus]” so the apostles could then “testify” to others (John 15:26). They would not have to rely on imperfect communication channels or their own fallible memories to be able to share the Lord’s message – they would be miraculously guided by the Holy Spirit so that they could deliver the perfect word of God to others.

As the apostles went about preaching the word, they were not at liberty to establish their own doctrine or alter the teachings that came from the Lord. Paul described the severe penalty that existed for anyone – even the apostles – who would preach a message that was different from the gospel of Christ: “But even if we, or an angel from heaven, should preach to you a gospel contrary to what we have preached to you, he is to be accursed! As we have said before, so I say again now, if any man is preaching to you a gospel contrary to what you received, he is to be accursed!” (Galatians 1:8-9).

The apostles were directly guided by the Holy Spirit. They understood and appreciated the severity of the consequences they would face for changing the Lord’s message. Therefore, their teaching was consistent. This is why Paul taught the same thing “everywhere in every church” (1 Corinthians 4:17).

Because of this, during the first century when the apostles were still present to lead and teach the early Christians, the characteristics of Christ’s church that we noticed in the previous article would have been mostly consistent among congregations. To briefly review what we discussed previously, the New Testament describes these characteristics of the Lord’s church: [For more on each of these points, see the article from the previous issue.]

  • The work of the church – evangelism (1 Thessalonians 1:8), edification (Ephesians 4:16), and limited benevolence (Acts 4:32-37; 11:29-30)
  • The worship of the church – singing (Colossians 3:16), praying (1 Corinthians 14:15), and preaching or teaching (1 Corinthians 14:26), observing the Lord’s Supper (Acts 20:7; 1 Corinthians 11:23-26) and giving (1 Corinthians 16:1-2)
  • The organization of the church – elders and deacons (Acts 14:23; Philippians 1:1) 
  • The message of the church – the truth of the gospel (1 Timothy 3:15), holding fast to this pattern (2 Timothy 1:13)

This was very different from what we are familiar with in our time. Today, there are a countless number of different churches around us. Each of these churches has their own name, set of doctrines, unique practices, and organizational structure. The churches that existed in the first century were nothing like that. They could all be accurately called “churches of Christ” (Romans 16:16) because they belonged to Him, wore no one else’s name, and they followed His word as it was taught by His apostles.

Of course, even during the first century, there were false teachers and problems in local churches that needed to be corrected. This is apparent when we read through the New Testament – especially the epistles. But for a while, error was the exception, not the rule.

Warnings of a Coming Apostasy

However, while there was greater unity during the time of the apostles, these spokesmen for Christ warned of a great departure from the faith that would arise. At the close of the first century, error was beginning to spread in different places; yet a time would be coming when this apostasy would be widespread. Let us consider some of these warnings that are contained in the New Testament.

Be on guard for yourselves and for all the flock, among which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers, to shepherd the church of God which He purchased with His own blood. 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” (Acts 20:28-30).

During Paul’s final meeting with the elders from the church at Ephesus, he reminded them of their responsibility to shepherd the flock and oversee the church among them. However, Paul warned that there would be trouble coming from outside of the church (evil influences and persecution). There would also be trouble coming from within the church as some Christians – even elders in the church – would teach things contrary to the message of Christ and would build a following for themselves.

But the Spirit explicitly says that in later times some will fall away from the faith, paying attention to deceitful spirits and doctrines of demons, by means of the hypocrisy of liars seared in their own conscience as with a branding iron, men who forbid marriage and advocate abstaining from foods which God has created to be gratefully shared in by those who believe and know the truth” (1 Timothy 4:1-3).

As Paul relayed the Spirit’s message to Timothy, he did not say that apostasy was possible; rather, he said that the Spirit explicitly said that it would happen. Interestingly, the Spirit warned of two specific errors that would be promoted by these false teachers – forbidding marriage (from those who had a God-given right to marry) and restricting the eating of certain foods which God permitted. In either case, the false teachers would be adding commandments to the word of God. By doing this, their message would fall under the classification of the “doctrines of demons.” We sometimes think of apostasy as falling short of God’s requirements. Yet this shows that apostasy can also occur when one goes beyond God’s requirements. As John wrote, these people “[go] too far and [do] not abide in the teaching of Christ” (2 John 9).

Preach the word; be ready in season and out of season; reprove, rebuke, exhort, with great patience and instruction. For the time will come when they will not endure sound doctrine; but wanting to have their ears tickled, they will accumulate for themselves teachers in accordance to their own desires, and will turn away their ears from the truth and will turn aside to myths” (2 Timothy 4:2-4).

Timothy’s responsibility – and the responsibility of every gospel preacher today – was to “preach the word.” However, Paul explained that not everyone would want to hear the plain, simple message of the gospel. Sadly, the same condition exists today. Those who were not content to “retain the standard of sound words” (2 Timothy 1:13) would find teachers who would deliver the message that they wanted to hear. The reason why error spreads is because there are many people who prefer a message that conforms to their desires rather than the message that is in harmony with the will of God.

Let no one in any way deceive you, for it will not come unless the apostasy comes first, and the man of lawlessness is revealed, the son of destruction, who opposes and exalts himself above every so-called god or object of worship, so that he takes his seat in the temple of God, displaying himself as being God. Do you not remember that while I was still with you, I was telling you these things?” (2 Thessalonians 2:3-5).

There were some in Thessalonica who had been led to believe that the return of Christ had already taken place (2 Thessalonians 2:1-2). Yet Paul explained that the “day of the Lord” would not happen until “the apostasy” occurred. This was not referring to one Christian falling away, a single congregation departing from the truth, or a handful of brethren adopting some false doctrine. Instead, Paul warned about the apostasy – a time of widespread departures from the standard handed down by the Lord through His apostles, with the result that many brethren and many congregations would no longer be following Christ. Instead, they would be following a “different gospel” (cf. Galatians 1:6). Once this apostasy occurred, it would continue to grow and eventually give rise to the myriad of denominations that we see in the world today.


In general, the church at the end of the first century generally reflected the Lord’s pattern handed down by His apostles. Yet false doctrines and departures from the faith were occurring in various places. While the apostles were still alive, they warned of the apostasy that was coming. Moving beyond the first century, we will see how this apostasy manifested itself as churches, in large part, began to fall away from the standard found in the New Testament.

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