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"The Fall of the Church":
What Does That Mean?
Some are just curious. Others are highly offended.
When I say, the fall of the church, people react.
"What do you mean by the fall of the church?" is perhaps my most frequently asked question.
I'm happy to explain.
What the Church Was
The decription of the first church in Jerusalem is electrifying. If it doesn't inspire, call you, and move you, then you probably have not had the love of God shed abroad in your heart by the Holy Spirit.
It's from Acts 2:42-47 ...
And they persisted in the apostles teaching, fellowship, breaking of bread, and prayers. Fear come upon each person, and many miracles and omens were done by the apostles. All the believers were together and shared everything. They sold their land and possessions and divided them among everyone according to need. They persisted in being together in the temple every day, and they broke bread from house to house, eating their meals with exuberance and singleness of heart. They praised God, and they have favor with all the people, and every day the Lord added to the church those who were being saved.
Is this a description of any church you know today? Going from house to house every day to eat together? Sharing those meals with exuberance? Devoting themselves to daily fellowship and teaching? Sharing their possessions as though they were brothers and sisters in more than name only?
The fall of the church means that most churches today don't even try to do those things. They teach that those things were temporary and only done in the church at Jerusalem.
Was the Real Family Atmosphere of the Early Church Temporary?
I'd like to make it clear that what the church in Jerusalem was doing was nothing more than what any close family would do. It was the product of something exceptionally spiritual—the love of God making family out of strangers—but it was a quite natural thing for a close family to do.
Today, we no longer believe in the family of God in any practical way. We talk about it, but the living of such a life is rare.
I started writing this page on a trip to Chattanooga. When I got there, I saw this frame. Its writing is absolutely pertinent to the what it means for the church to be the family of God; especially that first line. Is your church family in the way this frame describes? Do you want it to be? ... God does.
An Example of the Church as Family
A few months ago, I was on my way to visit a brother (in Christ) in Sacramento. I was driving, so I was due to stop in Salt Lake City before the last day's drive. My friend called to tell me that his parents lived in Salt Lake City, and I could stay with them.
I was a little nervous about taking advantage of the hospitality of complete strangers, but I called them anyway.
My friend's dad turned out to be the nicest person I've ever met. His wife wasn't in town, but he told me that his wife is actually the nice, hospitable one. She must be amazing because he bent over backwards for us, treated us like old friends, and even got up and made breakfast for us himself.
He practically demanded that we stay at his house on the return trip, even though he and his wife wouldn't be there! Circumstances, not a choice to buy, had put him in a large house in a nice neighborhood, and he said that if the Lord gave him the house, he was surely supposed to put it to good use.
My friend's dad is a pastor. Obviously, he believes what he preaches. He treated us like we really were his relatives. Of course, if we really believe the teachings of Christ, we are.
That kind of attitude is too rare today.
The Early Church as Family
In the early churches, it was normal. Jerusalem was not an anomaly. Pretty much every church was like it for two centuries ...
I want to see for yourself their description of church life before the fall of the church. We'll start with the latest one because it is the most direct reference to being family.
Approximately A.D. 200
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 themselves are animated by mutual hatred. "How they are ready even to die for one another!" For they themselves will sooner put to death.
They are angry with us, too, because we call each other brethren. There is no other reason for this, I think, than because among them names of consanguinity are given in mere pretence of affection. ...
How much more fittingly they are called and counted brothers who have been led to the knowledge of God as their common Father? Who have drunk in one Spirit of holiness? Who from the same womb of a common ignorance have agonized into the same light of truth?
But perhaps the very reason we are regarded as having less right to be considered true brothers is that no tragedy causes dissension in our brotherhood. Or maybe it is that 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. (Apology 39)
Approximately A.D. 100: 30 to 40 years after Paul died
As you read these, note the sort of wording these earliest Christians used in describing their life together: "Every day" "sleep together, wake together"; "share all things." How many churches do you know that would use such phrases to describe their life.
The loss of these things is what I mean by the fall of the church.
Take heed to come together often to give thanks to God and show forth his praise. For when you assemble frequently in the same place, the powers of Satan are destroyed and the destruction at which he aims is prevented by the unity of your faith. Nothing is more precious than peace, by which all war, both in heaven and earth, is brought to an end. (Ignatius, Letter to the Ephesians 13)
Labor together with one another. Strive in company together. Run together; suffer together; sleep together; awake together, as the stewards, assessors, and servants of God. (Ignatius, Letter to Polycarp 6)
You shall seek out the faces of the saints every day so that you may rest upon their words. You shall not long for division, but shall bring those who contend to peace ÖYou shall not turn away from him that is in need, but you shall share all things with your brother and shall not say that they are your own. For if you share what is immortal, how much more things which are temporary? (Anonymous, The Didache 4)
Do not, by retiring apart, live a solitary life, as though you were already justified. Instead, coming together in one place, inquire together about what will help all of you. (Letter of Barnabas 4)
You shall seek out the faces of the saints every day, either by laboring in word and going to exhort them, meditating how to save a soul by the Word, or with your hands you will work for the redemption of your sins. (Letter of Barnabas 19)
Approximately A.D. 150
We who formerly delighted in fornication now embrace chastity alone. We who formerly used magical arts dedicate ourselves to the good and unbegotten God. We who valued above all things the acquisition of wealth and possessions now bring what we have into a common stock and share with every one in need. We who hated and destroyed one another and would not live with men of a different tribe because of their different customs now, since the coming of Christ, share the same fire with them. (Justin Martyr, First Apology 14)
Approximately A.D. 175
With us there is no desire of self-exaltation, nor do we indulge in a variety of opinions. We have renounced the popular and earthly; we obey the commands of God; we follow the law of the Father of immortality; and we reject everything which rests upon human opinion. Not only do the rich among us pursue our philosophy, but the poor enjoy instruction without charge, for the things which come from God surpass the reimbursement of worldly gifts. (Tatian, Address to the Greeks 32)
Among us you will find uneducated persons, craftsmen, and old women, who, if they are unable in words to prove the benefit of our doctrine, yet by their deeds exhibit the benefit arising from their persuasion of its truth. They do not rehearse speeches, but exhibit good works; when struck, they do not strike again; when robbed, they do not go to law; they give to those that ask of them, and love their neighbors as themselves. (A Plea for the Christians 11)
These quotes establish that the idea of daily fellowship and the sharing of possessions was not confined to the first church at Jerusalem. It was the norm before the fall of the church.
If you're looking, you can see this in Paul's letters as well. For example, the apostle says that Christians are blessed by God with extra money only so that they can share it with Christians who have less (2 Cor 8:13-15).
The Fall of the Church
I say the church fell because the things I—and the early Christians I've quoted—have described above have disappeared.
How they disappeared is obvious to even to a part-time historian.
After Constantine legalized Christianity—and, indeed, supported it—everyone wanted to be a Christian. One estimate I read was that the church went from having 10% of the empire as members to having 90%. I have no idea whether those statistics are accurate or not, but they give you the idea ...
From the time of Constantine church discipline declines; the whole Roman world having become nominally Christian, and the host of hypocritical professors multiplying beyond all control. Yet the firmness of Ambrose with the emperor Theodosius shows, that noble instances of discipline are not altogether wanting. (Philip Schaff, History of the Christian Church, vol. III, p. 8)
There were several very bad results of this influx of people ...
- Most of these new "converts" were not converted. They did not want to serve Christ, nor know him. They did not have the Spirit of God. They were simply joining a new religion, being baptized because that's what they were supposed to do to join the religion the emperor supported.
- Bishop suddenly became an exceptionally powerful position. In the resort city of Nicea they had been lauded, banqueted, and seated in lofty places by the emperor himself at the Council of Nicea. Their influence at home was now almost as great as that of the governor of a city, perhaps greater. Bishops rose to power by violence and intrigue as often as they did by any spiritual choice.
I could tell you stories—and I have—of the awful state of the churches in the 4th century. The fall of the church is undeniable.
What To Do About It
What happened is obvious. What to do about the fall of the church, since we know what happened, is almost as obvious.
The problem was caused when the doors were opened and those who had not received the Gospel—whether they said they did or not— were allowed in.
To undo the fall of the church, we have to get them out.
Of course, if the church grew from 10% of the empire to 90% of the empire, or anything close to that, then the fake Christians—the devil's children who have been deceived into believing they can be God's children without denying themselves and suffering—greatly outnumber the real ones.
So perhaps it would be better if we got out rather than getting them out.
That's not such a radical idea. At some point, the Scriptures recommend it: "Come out of her, my people" is what the Lord tells those Christians living in an abominable system (Rev. 18:4).
George Barna argues in his book, Revolution, that some 20 million people have heeded that call over the past decade, leaving institutional churches to meet with others in the freedom of their own homes.
20 million people.
Like I said, it's not such a radical idea.
Unfortunately, it's a simple fact that most house churches fall as well, usually within the first 3 or 4 years. They have not learned from history, so they simply repeat the same mistakes the institutional churches they leave are making.
Most also never really consider that they are in a spiritual war and that the devil has a vested interest in ensuring they do not succeed. Nor do they know how to access their most powerful weapon.
I'd like to recommend my free ebook, How to Make a Church Fail, which describes the history of the fall of the church from the devil's perspective. (I borrowed that idea from C.S. Lewis' classic, The Screwtape Letters.)
Getting People out of the Church:
Behavior Versus Belief
As I've said above, if the final step in the fall of the church was the influx of unconverted people, then the first step of the solution is going to be to remove the unconverted—those who refuse to submit to the Gospel, no matter how much they're willing to attend services or contribute money.
Is it really appropriate to divide from people? Are we undoing the fall of the church or contributing to it when we separate from the unconverted?
While it is not Scriptural to divide over the sort of doctrines that denominations divide over (we moderns live in 1 Tim. 6:3-6), it is Scriptural—indeed, Scripturally mandated—to divide over ungodly living.
This is not to be taken to an extreme. God is merciful, and we must be, too. Christians are to be separated from the church not for sin but for refusing to repent (e.g., 2 Cor. 12:21).
Today, we have no idea what sound doctrine is even though it's explicitly described in Titus 2:1-10. The foundation of God is departing from iniquity (2 Tim. 2:19), not solving theological issues with modern Pharisees (to most of whom Jn. 5:39-40 applies).
God is much more concerned about behavior than belief.
What Titus 2 tells us is that sound doctrine almost exclusively concerns behavior, and what the whole New Testament tells us is that judgment is according to behavior without regard to theology (ref.: any verse in the NT on judgment, such as Matt. 25:31-46; Rom. 2:5-8; 2 Cor. 5:10; etc.).
Also, you should read through Revelation chapters 2 and 3 and notice what it is that aroused Jesus' approval or ire towards the churches.
Giving the Christians First
Many of us don't realize that the Bible says that our charity should be first to the church, which it refers to as the household of God (Gal. 6:10).
The early churches were not involved in controversies over "the Apocrypha," like the Protestants and Catholics are. They dealt with books individually, and sometimes churches had a different list of books, though there was much overlap.
One book that really wasn't disputed was the apocryphal book Tobit. Tobit was considered the ultimate text on almsgiving by the early churches, and Tobit himself always cared about the righteousness of those to whom he gave. Paul's statement in Galatians 6:10 just cemented that position.
Paul is very clear that we are not even to eat with someone called a brother or sister that is living in certain sins (1 Cor. 5:11). I am convinced that the list Paul gives is not comprehensive, but it does give an example of what he's talking about ...
- Sexual immorality
- Railing (Based on only little research, this appears to mean either speaking against the church or mischievousness)
That passage is not talking about condemning those who missed Sunday School, didn't read their Bible enough, or told a white lie somewhere. It's talking about behavior that defames Christ and his Gospel, including being too consumed with what the world offers (greed). Envy, for example, though not listed here, is said to keep us out of the kingdom of heaven in Gal. 5:19-21. The Gospel trains us not to desire the things of this world.
Note Jesus' behavior in the Book of Revelation. In chapters 2 and 3, there are seven letters from Jesus to seven churches.
- Jesus is patient and merciful. The sins that upset him are not minor or picky issues.
- Jesus is concerned about behavior. No church is rebuked for its beliefs unless that belief directly resulted in idolatry or adultery.
- Jesus is final. His punishments include removing their status as a church (Ephesus), fighting against them (Pergamos), sickness and death and tribulation (Thyatira, but only to the guilty), being blotted from the book of life (Sardis, except the worthy), and being vomited from his mouth (Laodicea).
The point I want to make is that getting the unsaved and rebellious out of the church is not an option. We cannot use the excuse that we want to witness to them. Our witness to them needs to be God's witness to them: that they cannot be Christ's disciples unless they deny themselves, take up their crosses, and follow him (Luke 9:23).
For example, what Jesus had against the church of Thyatira is that they tolerated a woman named Jezebel who claimed to be prophetess. Her and her disciples were living in the sorts of sin Paul describes in 1 Cor. 5. Those in Thyatira were not supposed to be tolerating Jezebel and her followers; they were supposed to marking and avoiding them (Rom. 16:17-18).
What Jesus built through his apostles is what he wanted. We've messed it up, and until only those who believe the Gospel are in the church, he won't have what he wants.
What Does It Mean To Be a Disciple?
Words like "deny yourself" and "take up your cross" are rather abstract, aren't they? They are hard to define.
Let's get back to our original family point, then. Jesus also said you can't be his disciple unless you forsake all your possessions (Luke 14:33).
We've seen what that means in the context of the church in Acts. Before the fall of the church, Christians lived like family. Forsaking their possessions meant sharing them with the poor in the church or even with the poor outside the church.
What About the Tares and the Wheat?
Jesus tells a story about a man who planted wheat, then went to sleep, whereupon his enemy came and planted tares among the wheat (Matt. 13:24-30). A couple different plants—the common vetch or ryegrass (not to be confused with rye)—could be the tares Jesus is referring to. Either way, Jesus says the tares are to be left to grow among the wheat so that the wheat are not uprooted.
On a practical basis, it seems clear that Jesus is trying to tell us that we have to be careful about throwing out Christians that look like Christians.
Jesus' parable can't contradict both his own teaching and Paul's that those who are unrepentant in sin must be "treated like tax collectors and sinners" (Matt. 18:15-17). That does not mean we mistreat them; Christians are kind people. It does, however, mean that we do not in any way treat them like they are Christians. We are not even allowed to eat with them.
Thus, if you want to quote the parable of the wheat and the tares in order to teach that we must be careful as we do the work of "judging those who are within," then you are using the parable accurately. If you use it to avoid judging those that are within, then you are refusing to follow Jesus Christ and the apostle Paul.