The Beginning of Apostasy

By Andy Sochor | Kentucky, USA

As we noticed in the previous article, the early Christians often faced severe persecution for the cause of Christ. While many abandoned their faith in order to avoid these persecutions, there were others who remained faithful even to the point of death. Because of this, the enemies of the church were not able to destroy it. The gospel continued to spread throughout the Roman Empire and beyond.

However, there was another threat against the church that would prove to have a much greater impact. Generally, the effects of persecution were immediate and obvious. Yet the other threat – apostasy (falling away from the faith) – would arise much more slowly, allowing it to take root before many even realized the problem.

The Hebrew writer warned about drifting from the message that was first taught by the Lord and His apostles (Hebrews 2:1-3). Though the apostasy would progress slowly and occur over several generations, eventually the “church” would look nothing like the one described in the New Testament. How did this happen? Let us consider the beginning of this apostasy.

Reminder of the Warnings in the New Testament

In the second article in this series, we noticed the state of the church at the end of the first century. During that time, the apostles warned of an apostasy that was coming. Yet this was not just a prediction by these men; rather, Paul told Timothy, “The Spirit explicitly says that in later times some will fall away from the faith, paying attention to deceitful spirits and doctrines of demons” (1 Timothy 4:1).

Paul told the church in Thessalonica that the return of Christ would not happen until “the apostasy comes first, and the man of lawlessness is revealed, the son of destruction” (2 Thessalonians 2:3). As we noticed in that earlier article, Paul was not referring to a few Christians falling away; instead, he was warning about a departure from the truth on a grand scale.

Furthermore, this apostasy would be led by those who were in positions of leadership in the church. Paul warned the Ephesian elders, “From among your own selves men will arise, speaking perverse things, to draw away the disciples after them” (Acts 20:30).

What would this apostasy look like? Notice Paul’s warning about the “man of lawlessness” in his letter to the Thessalonians: “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” (2 Thessalonians 2:4). In other words, this apostasy would first start to manifest itself as men in the church would elevate themselves above their brethren and begin to stand between them and God.

This is important – the “man of lawlessness” was not a single person; rather, it was an attitude. The rise of this lawless attitude would take place over a period of time and would not happen all at once. This “spirit of error” (cf. 1 John 4:6) that departs from the New Testament pattern would continue to grow over time until the church would evolve into something that was wholly unrecognizable from the description given in the New Testament.

Changes in Local Church Organization

During the second century, a practice developed of selecting one of the elders in a local church “to preside over the meetings as a permanent president” (Church History, John D. Cox, p. 26). This change may have been implemented as a matter of practicality in order to keep order in their meetings, yet the unofficial role of presiding elder eventually evolved into an official position. This man came to be known as the “bishop,” thus differentiating him from the other elders.

At this point, it would be helpful to be reminded of what the New Testament teaches about the overseers in the local church. There are three different terms that are used:

  • Elder (Acts 14:23; Titus 1:5; 1 Peter 5:1) – This is from the Greek word presbuteros which refers to one who presides over or has leadership of an assembly.
  • Bishop (Philippians 1:1; 1 Timothy 3:2) – The Greek word for this is episkopos. Newer translations use the word overseer, which helps us understand the meaning of the word. This refers to those who keep watch over the congregation.
  • Pastor (Ephesians 4:11) – This word (Greek: poimen) is used to describe a shepherd and is often translated that way (cf. Luke 2:8; John 10:11; 1 Peter 2:25). Peter used the verb form of this word to describe the work of feeding the flock (1 Peter 5:2).

Not long after the time of the apostles, the elders and bishops came to be seen as different offices or roles. Today, many religious groups use these terms (elders, bishops, pastors) to refer to different positions in their churches. However, in the New Testament, these terms referred to the same office. When Paul met with the “elders of the church” in Ephesus (Acts 20:17), he told them to shepherd (Greek: poimaino) the flock over which the Holy Spirit had made them overseers (Greek: episkopos) (Acts 20:28). When Peter wrote to the elders (1 Peter 5:1), he exhorted them to shepherd (Greek: poimaino) the flock and exercise oversight (Greek: episkopeo) (1 Peter 5:2).

These terms were not used to describe different offices in the church; rather, they were used to describe different aspects of the same office. In other words, using the language of the New Testament, an elder is a bishop and a bishop is an elder. Yet by making a distinction between the two, a new “office” was created which changed the organization of the church.

Development of a Larger Hierarchy

This somewhat subtle change in the organization of the local church established a new hierarchy. When Peter addressed the elders and instructed them to “shepherd the flock of God,” he reminded them of the “Chief Shepherd” (Jesus) who was over them (1 Peter 5:1-2, 5). Yet this change meant that the elders were no longer directly under the authority of Christ; they were now under the authority of the bishop.

Over time, the authority of the bishops grew and expanded beyond their local churches. Eventually, the bishops would oversee not just a single congregation, but a territory or “diocese.” This growing hierarchy eventually led to distinctions among the bishops with authority over churches, territories, and larger regions.

As questions and disputes would arise, church leaders (bishops and elders) would meet in synods or councils to discuss how to handle various issues and controversies. Eventually, these became permanent legislative bodies which further centralized control among the churches. Rather than having autonomous (self-governing) congregations in each place as the New Testament describes, five rulers (“patriarchs”) emerged as the chief rulers of the church – the bishops from Rome, Alexandria, Antioch, Jerusalem, and Constantinople.

Distinction between “Clergy” and “Laity”

As changes were developing in the organization of the church, a distinction was also being formed between preachers (“clergy”) and other members of the church (“laity”). This would lead to a protected and unaccountable class of leaders in the church – a concept foreign to the New Testament. The Bereans were commended as being “noble-minded” because they were “examining the Scriptures daily” to see if what Paul taught them was the truth (Acts 17:11). It was noble for them to confirm the truth of his message rather than just blindly accepting it. When Paul wrote to Timothy, he outlined a procedure for rebuking elders who continued in sin (1 Timothy 5:19-20). Yet the greater the divide between the “clergy” and the regular church members, the more difficult it would be to hold the leadership accountable.

In his book on church history, John D. Cox noted, “By the close of the Second Century…the ministry possessed the attributes of the priesthood. This idea borrowed support from Judaism” (Church History, Cox, p. 29). Yet God’s design for the church was that all of His people would constitute “a royal priesthood” (1 Peter 2:9).

This distinction between the “clergy” and “laity” is the reason why, even today, preachers and other religious leaders wear titles like “reverend” and “father,” even though Jesus specifically condemned such designations (cf. Matthew 23:9). Even the apostles in the New Testament, though they had been given a special role by the Lord, they did not view themselves as some elevated class in the church. Paul used himself and Apollos as an example to illustrate this in his first letter to Corinth: “What then is Apollos? And what is Paul? Servants through whom you believed, even as the Lord gave opportunity to each one” (1 Corinthians 3:5). Though he was an apostle, Paul did not “seek glory from men” (1 Thessalonians 2:6); instead, he told the Christians in Corinth that he and his fellow-workers considered themselves to be their “bond-servants for Jesus’ sake” (2 Corinthians 4:5).

Summary Despite the warnings that were given in the New Testament about the apostasy that would be coming, many were led astray. This came as a result of a series of relatively small departures from the New Testament pattern until eventually the “church” no longer resembled the one that Jesus purchased with His blood on the cross (cf. Acts 20:28). This should serve as a reminder for us about the “slippery slope” of error. One seemingly innocent change could lead to others that we would initially not be willing to accept; but the further we go, the more comfortable we become with even greater (and more unauthorized) changes. We need to be careful to “retain the standard of sound words” (2 Timothy 1:13) and “not drift away” (Hebrews 2:1) from what is taught in the New Testament.

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