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In this article I capitalize "Church" when it refers to the Church universal or the Church throughout the Roman empire. I use "church" with a small c when referring to local churches.
In 323, Eusebius, bishop of the church in Caesarea wrote a history of the Christian churches. It is full of the kind of things you expect a church history to contain. It describes the spread of Christianity to all lands, the establishing of the churches, the occasional conflict between them, and the bravery of the Christians in the face of persecution.
A century later, several others--Theodotus, Sozomen, Socrates Scholasticus, Rufinus, and Jerome--wrote histories taking up where Eusebius left off. These histories are not like his. They are filled with violence, divisions, and political intrigue.
The cause for the shift is not difficult to determine. The emperor Constantine ended persecution against Christians with the Edict of Milan in 313, then began to support the Christians, and even call himself a "fellow servant" (Eusebius, Life of Constantine, Bk. III, ch. 17). Many thousands of pagans followed him into the Christian church (Eusebius, "In Praise of Constantine," Ch. II, par. 6).
With only short exceptions (e.g., under Emperor Julian the Apostate from 360 to 363), from that time on Christian bishops became wards of the state and found themselves with great political influence (Schaff, P. History of the Christian Church. Vol. 3. sec. 15). The results of the influx of pagans and the new political power of the bishops can be seen in the differences between the history of the church up to 323 and the histories written afterward.
Those who have descended from those fourth- and fifth-century churches--the Orthodox in Greece and eastward into Asia and the Roman Catholics in Europe and the Americas--typically tell me that Jesus promised that the Church would not fall in Matthew 16:18. There we read, "... I will build my Church, and the gates of Hades shall not prevail against it."
The problem is that the drastic changes (described below) between the churches of the third century and those of the fourth century can and must be described as a fall or as apostasy. If Jesus' had really prophesied that the major churches of the Roman empire could not fall, then his prophecy would have been false. The simple fact, as I will be showing throughout this "Fall of the Church" series, is that they fell.
Fortunately for us as Christians, Jesus is not a false prophet. It is just shy of silly to interpret "the gates of Hades shall not prevail against the Church" as "the major churches of the Roman empire cannot apostatize." Since gates are defensive structures, it is much more sensible to interpret Jesus' statement to mean that Hades, the realm of death, will not be able to maintain its hold on the souls of men against the power of the Church's strongest weapon, the Good News that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God.
Unless Jesus makes empty threats of punishment, we have solid biblical evidence that individual churches can fall. Ephesus must surely be regarded as one of the major churches of the first three centuries, and Jesus threatened to remove their candlestick (Rev. 2:5). Since the candlesticks in Revelation represented churches (1:20), Jesus is clearly threatening to remove their status as a church.
Jesus' warning to the church of Laodicea is even more dreadful. If they did not repent, he was going to vomit them out of his mouth! (3:16).Surely losing one's status as a church or being vomited out of Jesus' mouth constitutes a fall!
It is apparent, then, that churches can fall, and I will be showing you that it is just as apparent that all or most of the major churches of the Roman empire did fall.
A century before the Emperor Constantine embraced Christianity, a Christian from Carthage described Christianity in this way:
It is mainly the deeds of a love so noble that lead many to label us. "See," they say, "How they love one another!" For they themselves are animated by mutual hatred. "How they are ready even to die for one another!" For they themselves will sooner put to death. ... The family possessions, which generally destroy brotherhood among you, create fraternal bonds among us. One in mind and soul, we do not hesitate to share our earthly goods with one another. All things are common among us but our wives. (Tertullian, c. AD 200, Apology, ch. 39)
A half century later, in 248, one of the leading teachers of the third century confidently defended Christians against a Roman accuser by writing:
And so, too, you must compare the ruler of the church in each city with the ruler of the people of that city in order to observe that even among those councilors and rulers of the church of God who come very far short of their duty and who lead more indolent lives than those who are more energetic, it is nevertheless possible to discover a general superiority in things relating to the development of virtue over the characters of the councilors and rulers in the various cities. (Origen, Against Celsus, Bk. III, ch. 29-30)
No churches have ever been perfect, but in general the Christians of the second and third centuries described and defended their churches with words like we have just read from Tertullian and Origen. After the Church in the Roman Empire embraced the Roman emperor, Christians could no longer make such claims. They not only engaged in constant bickering, but they began to resolve their differences in violent ways.
By this internal war among the Christians, continuous seditions arose in that city, and many lives were sacrificed in consequence of these occurrences. (The Ecclesiastical History of Socrates Scholasticus, 439, Bk. II, ch. 12)
This "internal war" in Constantinople was over the removal of a bishop by the Emperor Constantius (one of Constantine's three sons). While Constantius aroused much of the conflict, it was "Christians" who were killing one another over the choice of bishop. Think of it, their response was actually worse than that of American secular society over the election of the highly controversial Donald Trump. True, the United States has had numerous demonstrations, but no loss of life.
Even outside Constantinople, these Christians, newly "converted" by following Emperor Constantine into the Church, found violence the preferred method for dealing with dissatisfaction over the current bishop.
Dissension arose among the people [of Rome]; their disagreement being not about any article of faith or heresy, but simply as to who should be bishop. Hence frequent conflicts arose, insomuch that many lives were sacrificed in this contention. (The Ecclesiastical History of Socrates Scholasticus, 439, Bk. IV, ch. 29)
Simply put, in the fourth century, these kind of stories are not unusual. Notice the term "continuous" in the first passage from Socrates Scholasticus and "frequent" in the second. The shift from a peaceful people to a violent one is sufficient for me to call this change a fall of the Church, but it does not end there.
Besides the violence and bickering, from the third to the fourth century there was a change in the structure of the churches that cannot be described in stories of the "Fall of the Church" section, but which must be pointed out and remembered.
Can any of us imagine Peter and Paul gladly being referred to as "the most holy and reverend" Peter and Paul? It is common today, and at the Council of Ephesus in 432, this is exactly how Juvenal, bishop of Jerusalem, referred to Celestine, archbishop of the church in Rome. Right afterward, Peter, an elder from Alexandria, refers to Cyril, bishop of Jerusalem, as "his holiness" ("Council of Ephesus." Extracts from the Acts. Session 1. (Continued). In The Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers. Series 2. Volume 14.)
Of course, none of us are surprised by this. The Roman Catholic and Orthodox churches have only improved on those honorifics, not discarded them. Despite the fact that the apostles used no such honorific titles and Jesus forbad them (Matt. 23:8-12), the high churches revel in those titles, and evangelicals go on blissfully unaware that "Pastor," as a title rather than a description, is equally forbidden.
These honorifics were unknown among third-century bishops. For example, Cyprian, the famed bishop of Carthage, wrote to Stephen the bishop of Rome in the 250's addressing him merely as brother ("Letters of Cyprian" 66 in The Ante-Nicene Fathers, vol. 5). Cornelius, Stephen's predecessor, addressed Cyprian in the same way ("Letters of Cyprian" 45). Again, it is only after the bishops became wards of the state under Constantine that they began to embrace titles fit for governors and princes rather than those fit for Christian leaders.
Jesus once told the apostles that it is the Gentiles whose rulers exercise authority and lord over them. His brief proscription of this was, "It shall not be so among you" (Mark 10:43).
There is one other issue that came in at the fall of the Church, something we typically do not even consider as a possible fault.
Today it is a given that most churches are made up primarily of nominal Christians. An example might be the first church my wife and I attended as a married couple. The church had a roll of around 700 members, but only about 200 turned up on a Sunday morning. Far fewer attended Sunday night training union and the varied events on Wednesday nights.
Because of this web site, I often receive emails suggesting that the information on my own web site ought to lead me to join the Roman Catholic or one of the Orthodox Churches. Sometimes this happens in person as well. In person, I often respond with this question: "Does your local church consist primarily of people who exhort and encourage one another, bail each other out of financial troubles, and share their possessions as needed? Or is it more like the Greek Orthodox folk in the movie 'My Big Fat Greek Wedding'?" (2002, credits).
Virtually every time, they look dejected, then honestly admit their church is more like 'My Big Fat Greek Wedding' than the church as described by Luke in Acts and by the early Christians.
I have shown already that the churches of the second and third century loved one another, shared their possessions, and as a group they lived lives of sufficient virtue that they could fearlessly boasted that their lesser members were more virtuous than the typical Roman. Let's look at one more passage from them.
A second- or third-century Christian about whom we know almost nothing wrote an account of a debate between a Roman and a Christian. We don't know whether the debate was real or fiction, but Minucius Felix, the author, describes Christians in this way:
If you wish to compare Christians with yourselves, then even if in some things our discipline is inferior, yet we shall be found much better than you. (The Octavius, Argument 5)
Felix went on to add, "From your numbers the prisons boil over, but there is no Christian there unless he is accused on account of his religion or has deserted it" (ibid.).
In 1 Corinthians 5, the apostle Paul tells us that we should strive to keep the church unleavened. We do this by "purg[ing] the evil person from among you" (v. 13, ESV). Who does this today?
I have several personal stories about how modern (evangelical) churches not only do not purge themselves, but they oppose those individuals who try. Baptist churches still give letters for members who transfer to another Baptist church. (I commend them for this practice.) A friend of mine was part of a church that gave a somewhat negative letter of transfer to a church in another city. The receiving church was furious, even though the letter was accurate, and they forced my friend's church to rewrite the letter.
Another friend was helping to plant a new church when he found out that one of the couples in the church was living together outside of marriage. He went to the other elders to discuss the best way to approach and talk to the couple. The other elders not only refused to talk to the couple, but forbid him to do so as well. It was considered "meddling."
In the pre-Constantine churches, purging the loaf was taken seriously. Tertullian, mentioned earlier, who wrote right around the year 200, described the heartbreak felt if a church had to separate a member:
With great gravity the work of judging is carried on among us, as befits those who feel assured they are in the sight of God; and you have the most notable example of judgment to come when anyone has sinned so grievously as to require his severance from us in prayer, in the congregation, and in all sacred interaction. (Tertullian, Apology, ch. 39)
This is why the early Christians were able to boast the things they boasted. They not only were willing to purge the leaven from the loaf as Paul commanded in 1 Corinthians 5, but they were also willing to take steps to prevent that judgment from happening:
We assemble to read our sacred writings ... With the sacred words we nourish our faith, we animate our hope, we make our confidence more steadfast, and no less than by the inculcation of God's precepts we confirm good habits. In the same place also exhortations are made, rebukes and sacred censures are administered. (ibid.)
This kind of exhortation of one another is prescribed in the New Testament well. The writer of Hebrews tells us to "consider how to provoke one another to love and good works" (10:24) and to "exhort one another daily, while it is called today" (3:12).
This kind of thing happens today, but not as a regular part of our church meetings. Who goes to a service expecting to be personally exhorted or worse, rebuked?
In my church, we do watch over one another. In general, "rebukes and sacred censures," as Tertullian called them, are conducted in private, not at a church meeting, but even that horrifies modern Christians. One email I received charged us with "prying into one another's lives in the name of accountability."
The fact is that rather than having to pry into one another's lives, we choose to live our lives openly, in the light, expecting the aid of our brothers and sisters when our zeal flags or when there is trouble in our marriage. People don't need to pry; we ask for help. Jesus once said that if your brother offends you and you can't work it out, you should get one or two others for help (Matt. 18:16). We do that even with our marriages, and it has proven to be one of the greatest gift of living in community. In a world where divorce is common, many more couples could use such simple, friendly, loving, and free aid in their marriages.
The evidence for the success of such interaction is seen in our children, some of whom have moved on to other places and other churches as they have grown up. These youth, after they leave, complain that they cannot find friends who even understand the depth of friendship they experienced growing up.
This kind of cleansing of the church, this kind of closeness in the church, and the boasting that went along with it in the early churches is lost. The Church became practically a public institution under Constantine and his successors. Being baptized as a child and going through the various rituals of the church became practically a requirement of citizenship rather than a result of real transformation by the Spirit of God.
Losing the ability and desire to have the pure loaf Paul called for in 1 Corinthians may be the most significant sign that the Church fell once the churches' leaders began to cooperate with the Empire's leaders. Not only did we lose the practice of purging the leaven from the local church, we lost even the desire.
When I was younger, I was certain if I just announced all these facts, the churches—at least the ones that claimed to follow the Bible alone—would see the problem and go to work on it. I am sad to say that I found out over the last 35 years just how naive I was.
If you are a shepherd of some sort, I hope that you will take regard for the sheep of God that may be in your flock and give them what the apostles and their early successors gave them. They gave them oversight, care, and trained them how to build one another up (Eph. 4:11-16). They separated the sheep from the goats and wolves and brought them into one flock where that work could be done well. In mercy, they evangelized the goats and wolves, but they did not allow them into the flock unless they came in repentance and submission. Should they prove by their deeds not to be sheep, they were severed from the flock of God "in prayer, in the congregation, and in all sacred interaction" (Tertullian, Apology, ch. 39).
If you are not a shepherd, then perhaps the most important thing you can share with those that are not doing the things Jesus taught us to do is that one day we will all be judged by our works. The details of that judgment are given in Matthew 25:31-46 (the "Judgment of the Sheep and the Goats"). If they have already believed and been baptized, then what they need is repentance and obedience to Jesus. James tells us at the very end of his letter that if we can get our erring brothers and sisters to repent, then we are saving a soul from death (Jam. 5:20). Jude calls it snatching them out of the fire (v. 23).
Because of the evangelicals confused misunderstanding (abuse?) of the phrase "faith alone," they tend to oppose exhortation to good works and obedience. Because of that, I feel it necessary to remind you here that good works are the very purpose of the Scriptures (2 Tim. 3:16-17) and to remind you that the Scriptures twice promise the Holy Spirit to those who obey Jesus (Acts 5:32; Heb. 5:9). In fact, let me give you one more Scripture, desperately needed in these present times:
The saying is trustworthy, and I want you to insist on these things, so that those who have believed in God may be careful to devote themselves to good works. These things are excellent and profitable for people. (Tit. 3:8)
Again I remind you that the works I am talking about are the ones for which you will one day be judged. Love is obviously central to the New Testament, and so you will find that according to Jesus, your judgment will hinge entirely on how you took care of those who needed you (Matt. 25:31-46).
These are not my favorite stories. They are interesting, but they mark nothing good. They simply show in stark, disheartening reality, what happened to the churches and practices you read about in the Bible. I have four up on the site so far.