We now have a rather important question that needs answering, don’t we? After all, if what I am saying about how churches ought to be is in accordance with the New Testament, and I have clearly demonstrated that no scholar of note would suggest that it isn’t, then we have to ask why churches are set up so completely differently from what the apostles originally established them to be like. And not just churches on the scene today either, or even churches at certain epochs of history; no, we are talking about churches from virtually the second century, soon after the death of the apostles, onwards. We must understand just what caused these changes, and why, though the answer isn’t actually a ‘what’ at all. It is rather a matter of ‘whom’. So allow me to introduce you to a group of men whom history has come to refer to as the Early Church Fathers.
This term is generally used by biblical historians to denote the men who arose to become the most influential leaders of Christian churches during the two or three centuries after the original apostles died. These were the guys who held the fort against heresy and false teachings concerning the very nature of salvation, some of them ending up being martyrs and doing so at the cost of their very lives. They defended and preserved the truth of the deity of both Jesus and the Holy Spirit, and through their leadership and influence the Christian gospel was preserved and propagated when it was, arguably, at its most vulnerable. And of course in this respect they were quite clearly the good guys, so why am I now going to label them the bad guys in regards to the issue of what churches ought to be like? Well, because notwithstanding all the good they did (and they did more good than we can possibly estimate), they nevertheless threw a sizable spanner in the works concerning church life and practice and messed things up in that regard really quite appallingly. Indeed, they introduced teachings and practices that not only didn’t conform to the teaching of the apostles, and therefore the New Testament, but which actually went directly against it – and with a vengeance too!
We need to understand, though, that, unlike us today, they didn’t have the completed New Testament to tuck under their arms and constantly refer to. They couldn’t give people systematic teaching from the entire Word of God for the simple reason that they didn’t have the entire Word of God from which to have systematic teaching themselves, let alone to pass on to others. Throughout most of the years that they led churches the New Testament only existed in the form of various and disparate letters and documents which were spread out all over the place. As scripture it was complete and entire, but it wasn’t fully available as a whole ‘book’ to any one person. Only in the third and fourth centuries could the New Testament be said to have been compiled into one volume and therefore available in the way we understand it today. And of course that was, to put it mildly, a bit of a handicap for them, and I reckon they didn’t do too badly considering. After all, imagine yourself as a church leader trying to ward off and counter the most complex heresies and false teachings about the Lord Jesus and His salvation with just the Old Testament scriptures, a couple of Paul’s writings maybe, a gospel or two, and, perhaps, John’s third letter. It’s not really much to go on is it? I shudder to think what a mess I would make of things without the entire New Testament at my disposal. Come to think of it, I shudder at the mess I’ve made of things even though I always have had the entire New Testament at my disposal! So I am actually quite a big fan of these guys, and a coward like me can only tip my hat in awed respect to any who have risked death for the Lord every day of their lives. So yes, I actually think they did a pretty good job in many respects, but I must nevertheless still show you what a total mess they made of the churches they had influence over, and what wayward and unbiblical teachings and practices they developed and introduced. (I ought just to say here that there are those, and better men among them than I will ever be, who think I am way too soft on these guys, and that I ought not to try and excuse them in the way I do. They think that the Fathers should have known better and, as far as they are concerned, that is the end of it! And maybe they’re right, I’m really not too sure! I just feel that I personally need to give the Fathers the benefit of the doubt. After all, the one thing I am in no doubt about whatsoever is that not only would I have done no better than them, I would have almost certainly done an awful lot worse.)
We must, however, be somewhat more strident in our censure of those leaders who followed on from them once the New Testament was fully compiled and available. They at least should have seen how far the churches had departed from what the Lord had originally intended them to be like and had made clear in His Word regarding their practice and set up, and they should have most definitely made the appropriate changes. We will be seeing just why this would have been such a hard thing for them to do, but they should have nevertheless done so and given final place to the teaching of Jesus and His apostles in the New Testament and not, as they rather did, to the Early Church Fathers. Instead of testing the legacy of the Fathers’ in the light of the Word of God, they rather argued that the New Testament could only really be understood properly in the light of the teaching of the Early Church Fathers, and that the Fathers’, and they alone, were the key to so doing.
We are beginning to run ahead of ourselves somewhat here, but it is worth noting that we have hit on the outrageous error of judgment that has haunted the Christian Church ever since. Here we have the mistake, and one of almost unimaginable significance and importance too, that changed the way things should have been virtually beyond recognition.
So come with me on a jaunt through the developing teachings and practices of some men who loved the Lord and who suffered greatly for Him, but who nevertheless got the New Testament truths about the Christian Church about as totally and utterly wrong as they could have done. We are not, as you will see, dealing with what might be said to be sideways steps, or with small and unimportant moves away from what should have been the way of things. No! We are rather going to be seeing a wholesale departure from biblical truth. Moreover, a departure from biblical truth which resulted in churches being not merely different from what Jesus wanted, but virtually the exact opposite: indeed, the very antithesis of what He had intended!
We therefore come to the heart of the problem: the errors and false teaching concerning church life and practice handed down by the Early Church Fathers!