In our last post we ended by asking how the simplicity we see in the teaching of Jesus morphed into abusive systems of religion, which, in concert with the state has caused so much war, killing, abuse and persecution.
This is true both in the history of the Catholic and Protestant movements and their various branches such as, in my own background and universe, the Calvinist/ Reformed tradition here in Scotland which we examined in more detail in our last post.
The starting point in understanding how it all went wrong must be a return, first of all, to the teaching and predictions of Jesus himself. There are three keys here that I find helpful.
First of all Jesus made the prediction that his true followers would face the same persecution from the religious authorities that he had (John 15:20). Our first port of call in history then is to try to discover the followers of Jesus who were persecuted by the religious/state authorities of their day. We know of course that the early church faced persecution at the hands of both their Jewish (Religious) and Roman (State) countrymen – but I do not believe Jesus prediction was limited to a timescale. So look out for the persecutor and the persecuted. They come from a radically different fold.
The second key is the ‘It shall not be so among you’ of Jesus –
‘But Jesus called them unto him, and said, Ye know that the princes of the Gentiles exercise dominion over them, and they that are great exercise authority upon them.But it shall not be so among you: but whosoever will be great among you, let him be your minister; And whosoever will be chief among you, let him be your servant. Even as the Son of man came not to be ministered unto, but to minister, and to give his life a ransom for many.’
Matthew 20: 25-28 (JKV)
Lookout for the hierarchical system – those that set themselves over and above others whether due to theological superiority and pride or denominational rank structure. These are both present within the ‘Reformed’ systems of my culture and background as well as in the excesses of the Catholic system it replaced. Once again, let me make it clear, I know full well not everyone within these systems will hold to the abuses of authority within their chosen religious grouping – but beware of it nonetheless. It was this corruption of true authority that first caused the downward spiral in the history of the church. (1)
The third key relates to Jesus understanding and teaching regarding the Kingdom of God. As we have seen, the Scottish Reformation was meant to usher in the Kingdom of God on earth. Sadly it did not work out that way. In their attempt to recreate heaven on earth by the use of the sword, control and punishment these Reformers actually initiated a reign of fear and terror. I’m sorry but there is no nicer what of putting it – or of understanding it. Far from being a Kingdom of love, mercy and grace it became the very antithesis of the Kingdom of God. They appear to have missed or ignored the teaching of Jesus –
‘And when he was demanded of the Pharisees, when the kingdom of God should come, he answered them and said, The kingdom of God cometh not with observation: Neither shall they say, Lo here! or, lo there! for, behold, the kingdom of God is within you.’
Luke 17: 20-21
So as we look at history for a true reflection of the Kingdom of God, for true followers of The Christ – we are, I suspect, looking for individuals and groups who follow Jesus but are persecuted by the dominant religious authority of the age and culture in which they live, are not part of, or at least reject, a system which ‘lords it over’ others and recognises that the Kingdom of God is a spiritual one, rather than being ordered after the pattern of the kingdoms of this world (how else can we understand the ‘within you’ of Jesus?).
The above also raises the even more controversial question of – what, or perhaps more correctly, who is the church? For Jesus clearly says –
‘I will build my church; and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it.’
Matthew 16:8 (KJV)
What ‘church’ is Jesus referring to here? Are those who murder and persecute other believers simply because they do not share the same theological views part of his church? Are those who raise the sword to defend their faith true followers of Christ – the Prince of Peace? Can you truly love God but hate your brother or sister? Do followers of Jesus burn their opponents at the stake and drown women and children? I do not subscribe to the notion that such behaviour is acceptable in any age – far less by those who claim to represent the Suffering Servant.
The question remains – what will ‘His Church’ look like? And this issue is, of course, still very relevant today. Because we face the same question as we look to follow Jesus in 2021? When is a church not a church? Or perhaps where can I find the true church?
Part of the problem is that many, if not most churches (in the common understanding of the term) believe they are the true church. They believe their group or denomination to be the true reflection of the Kingdom of God on earth. There is a very telling line in this respect in a letter from John Calvin to a friend in 1540. Writing about one Hermann of Gerbihan who had been an Ana-Baptist, Calvin writes –
‘Hermann has, if I am not mistaken, in good faith returned to the church. He has confessed that outside the church there is no salvation, and that the true church is with us; therefore, it was apostasy when he belonged to a sect separated from it; for this misstep he asked forgiveness.’
So according to Calvin – the one true church is the Reformed Church and outside it there is no salvation. The Catechism of the Catholic Church is also quite clear –
‘There is no salvation apart from a salvific union with the Catholic Church.’
Of course the same stance is true of Jehovah’s Witnesses as well as a host of other groups and cults. Once again I am not suggesting that everyone within these traditions believe this. But such is the official stance among many.
I personally have come to the conclusion that the Catholic and Protestant Church (so called) as religious/political movements are not a true reflection the Kingdom of God and the reign of Christ. Again, that is not to say that there are not individuals within them who are. But as religious/political entities they are not. How then can people see a true representation of God’s Kingdom? And if people are not seeing it or they have never heard the true ‘Gospel of The Kingdom’ – how, in the final analysis will that affect their standing before a righteous God?
The Catholic Church gives a clear answer in relation to this matter and in the light of their previous statement –
‘This affirmation is not aimed at those who, through no fault of their own, do not know Christ and his Church: Those who, through no fault of their own, do not know the Gospel of Christ or his Church, but who nevertheless seek God with a sincere heart, and, moved by grace, try in their actions to do his will as they know it through the dictates of their conscience – those too may achieve eternal salvation” (quoting, Lumen Gentium, 16).’
The Protestant/Reformed view on this question varies from church to church. As to my own tradition and general background – Calvinism – the issue is further complicated by its stand on election – the view that God wills the salvation of some and not others. But now is not the time to get in to that debate.
The question however remains a very live one – even in what was, until recently, termed, ‘Christian’ nations’. If Christianity has been corrupted and disfigured to the extent that I suspect it has – how can anyone today have the opportunity of really seeing a true reflection of The Christ and his Kingdom? I suggest that the definition in the Catholic Catechism applies to most people today in our culture, in that they – ‘through no fault of their own, do not know Christ and his Church.’
All I can suggest is that you look out for the sword of love – not the sword of power, control, abuse and dictatorship! Look out for people and groups, they may even, of course, be within tradition forms of Christianity, for whom their watchword is – love to God and love for others. As the Apostle Paul says – ‘For the kingdom of God is not meat and drink; but righteousness, and peace, and joy in the Holy Ghost.’ (Romans 14: 17 AV). In other words it is not founded in the material – but in the spiritual. The Kingdom of God is to be found, I believe, in the hearts and lives of individuals and groups who have been pierced by the love of God and who live out that Kingdom Love within their community and sphere of influence.
Once again we have a historical examples of this.
In 1727 a group of persecuted Christian refugees, principally from Moravia but also from other states, were granted permission to settle on lands belonging to one Count Nicholas von Zinzendorf in Saxony near the present day border with Poland. E.D. Burns, in his book – ‘Moravian Missionary Piety and the Influence of Count Zinzendorf’, takes up the story –
‘Zinzendorf created a community house in Herrnhut, which means “The Lord’s Watch.” Herrnhut saw rapid growth due to Moravian refugees. During the influx of immigration, German Pietists, Lutherans, Reformed, Separatists, Anabaptists, and other religious enthusiasts were attracted to the growing Christian community. And great discord arose due to diversity of opinion and diverse religious enthusiasm. May 12, 1727, became a milestone for the Moravian Church. They confessed their sorrow for past division and pledged to live together in mutual love. This constitution birthed the revival in Herrnhut, from which Moravian spirituality grew. The apex of this revival occurred the following August. Concerted, extraordinary praying preceded it. On Wednesday, August 13, the manifest presence of the Holy Spirit visited the community in a remarkable way. This corporate renewal was the impetus for the hundred-year Moravian prayer movement where they prayed without stopping.’
The full text of the covenant called the ‘Brotherly Agreement’ entered into by the Herrnhut group can be found online (2) – but some of their rules are very relevant to what we have been saying here –
- Rule 2 – ‘Herrnhut, and its original old inhabitants must remain in a constant bond of love with all Children of God belonging to the different religious persuasions — they must judge none, enter into no disputes with any, nor behave themselves unseemly towards any, but rather seek to maintain among themselves the pure evangelical doctrine, simplicity and grace.’
- Rule 39 – ‘No magisterial person, Minister, Elder, or Warden, nor anyone else who may in this or the other respect have authority over others, shall use the power possessed by him, otherwise than to be a helper of the joy of those over whom he is placed, and to comfort them in sufferings, trials, and wants.’
Most will know that the Moravian Movement became the precursor to modern Christian Mission and that it was as a result of a meeting with Moravian Missionaries in 1736 that John Wesley came to faith. What initially impressed Wesley, as he observed Moravian men, women and children, on board his ship, was their servant heart, joy in the midst of opposition and peace in the face danger. On Sunday, January 25, 1736, Wesley records –
‘At seven I went to the Germans. I had long before observed the great seriousness of their behaviour. Of their humility they had given a continual proof, by performing those servile offices for the other passengers, which none of the English would undertake; for which they desired, and would receive no pay, saying, “it was good for their proud hearts,” and “their loving Saviour had done more for them.” And every day had given them occasion of showing a meekness which no injury could move. If they were pushed, struck, or thrown down, they rose again and went away; but no complaint was found in their mouth. There was now an opportunity of trying whether they were delivered from the Spirit of fear, as well as from that of pride, anger, and revenge. In the midst of the psalm wherewith their service began, the sea broke over, split the main-sail in pieces, covered the ship, and poured in between the decks, as if the great deep had already swallowed us up. A terrible screaming began among the English. The Germans calmly sung on.’
Such is the life and testimony of those who have been pierced with the sword of Love. And those who have are, I believe, a true reflection of the Kingdom and love of God. The possession of such a treasure is truly a rare thing in this world – but worth everything.
‘Heaven’s kingdom realm can be illustrated like this: A person discovered that there was hidden treasure in a field. Upon finding it, he hid it again. Because of uncovering such treasure, he was overjoyed and sold all that he possessed to buy the entire field just so he could have the treasure.’
Matthew 13:44 (TPT)
This, it seems to me, is true religion – a religion of the heart and not only of the head. A religion rooted in the God who is Love and in a people for whom love is the overriding principle in everything. Sadly, as I look back on the closed universe in which I was brought up, spent the formative years of my life and early adulthood – and indeed as I look at it today, I have to conclude that much (not all) of it was/is based in a religion of the head only.
So, above all things, seek a life rooted in the love of God, for it is the only treasure, that when all is said and done, will outlast all others.
‘Until then, there are three things that remain: faith, hope, and love — yet love surpasses them all. So above all else, let love be the beautiful prize for which you run.’
1 Corinthians 13:13 (TPT)
(1) The basic problem lies in two areas: –
A – A misunderstanding or misapplication of biblical authority.
B – The abuse of authority.
For the true believer, Christ alone must be the sole source of authority (1 Cor.11: 3, 12:4-11 & 27-31). The roles in scripture which are so often used to justify an authority structure: – Shepherd, Apostle, Prophet, Teacher, Elder etc, are not “official” positions in an authority structure but rather services to be rendered to the church, Christ’s body.
These services are for the building up of the church, the people of God, so that they may grow to be mature Christians, not constantly dependent on others to think for them (See Eph.4:11-16, 1 Cor.3: 1-3, Heb.5: 12-14).
Paul in writing to Timothy presents the Christian community in terms of family relationships (1 Tim.5: 1&2). Those who were older in the faith and in Christian experience could serve in a similar way to an older brother in a family. While as elder son he may be expected and entrusted to keep the instructions of the head of the family, in no sense should be presume to act as if he were the head of the family, or to make rules and regulations other than those given by the head.
So it should be in the Christian family. Christ is the head and master. He has left his instructions. We are all members of his family. The younger should be subject to the older. The older should serve in love and grace but never in a condescending and authoritarian manner.
But very early in the history of the church, the principles of family relationships and mutual subjection to one another had become corrupted. By 325 AD we discover that a council of bishops, presided over by Constantine had produced a creed to which Christians everywhere were expected to subscribe.
What were the factors that made possible this alteration of the Christian community from a simple brotherhood to an authoritarian church system?
The first sign of corruption seems to have come with a change in the view regarding the place and role of elders or presbyters (the Greek term for elder being “presbyteros”). Instead of being seen as elder brothers serving in the family, the claim that they held a special relationship with God, distinct from and superior to their fellow believers, began to emerge.
While it is true that elders in the New Testament had authority it is clear that it was authority to serve, not to subjugate others (Matthew 20 v 25 – 28, 23 v 10 – 11, 2 Corinthians 1 v 24).
The elder’s authority is seen in dealing with error by truthful argument and persuasion, in a spirit of humility and by example (Titus 1 v 9 – 13, 1 Peter 5 v 1 – 5). The principle outlined in these scriptures must always be kept in mind and other scriptures seen and understood in the light of them. For instance Hebrews 13 v 17 exhorts us “be obedient to those who are taking the lead among you, be submissive….” At face value one may think that this text exhorts an automatic submission to persons who takes the lead, but Jesus Himself warned against the dangers of this (Matt 23 v 8 – 12).
When we examine the context of Hebrews 13, we discover that the Greek word “peithomai” rendered “be obedient” in our Bible also has the sense “to trust”, ” to be convinced”, “to believe” or “to follow”. WE Vine in his Expository Dictionary notes in this connection, – “The obedience suggested is not a submission to authority, but resulting from persuasion”.
But the apostle had in fact already qualified matters in v7 by making plain that those “taking the lead” were men who “spoke the word of God to you” of whom Paul could say, “imitate their faith”.
As long as the guidance given is in harmony with the word of God and the teaching of Jesus Christ, and as long as the shepherding manifests His spirit then our response ought to be positive. But we are not exhorted to automatic or unquestioned submission to any who claim a superior authority with the right to command obedience.
However, even as the apostles had foreseen (Acts 20: 28-30), some elders lost sight of their true position and the principals laid down by the founder of the faith. Instead of giving place to God’s authority such men began to emphasise their own. Why did they succeed? Perhaps like many today, the people then preferred to let others bear a responsibility that was their own (2 Corinthians 11: 20).
This form of corrupted authority in the leadership of the Church had already surfaced during the ministry of the Apostle John. He writes of Diotrephus, describing him as one who “loves to be first” (3 John 9&10). Notice that he also expelled from the Church those who would not conform to his position. How often has this been repeated in the history of the Church, even today?
We can trace the growth of this attitude in the writings of Ignatius of Antioch (AD 30 to AD 107). In them we find exhortations such as “And ye be subject to your presbyters (elders) as to the apostles of Jesus Christ. Your presbyters preside in the place of the assembly of the Apostles. Be subject to your presbyters (body of elders) as to the law of Jesus Christ” (Ignatius “Epistle to the Trallians”)
Teachings such as these marked the beginning of a clergy – laity distinction. Thus the doctrine and practice of the “Priesthood of all believers” was corrupted and priesthood, distinct from the main body of believers, began to emerge. This had dire consequences for the Church, the effects of which are felt even today.
The drift towards a visible centralised authority continued in the elevation, not only of the elders, but subsequently to one super elder. This concentration of authority in a single individual appears to have been a practical step, made in the light of an influx of false teaching. Jerome, who first translated the bible into Latin in AD 404, states, “Gradually all the responsibility was deferred to a single person, that the thickets of heresy might be rooted out”.
Thus one of the elders became the “Overseer”. The word “Bishop” is derived from the Greek word for overseer “Episkapos”. Consequently, the office of Bishop was born. Ultimately supreme authority was given to one man. In AD 415 the Council of Chalcedon agreed that the term “Pope” be reserved exclusively for one man – Leo the Great (AD 390 to 461). Leo bent all his strength towards gaining recognition for the Bishop of Rome as universal Bishop.
One historian records “Instead of being a humble pastor, as were the early presbyters who ministered to the flock of God, he (the Pope) is now able to hold his own with kings and beat them at their diplomatic game. His proud claim is that he is supreme over all the churches and all other Bishops” (AM Renwick, The story of the Church, IVP, Page 69)
As a result of the effort to maintain doctrinal purity, man had once again turned to the “arm of the flesh”, the elevation of human authority. Thus the abuse of authority by power hungry men decimated the true Church of God.
Is this not reminiscent of God’s people in the O.T who sought a visible head, a king around whom to rally and to whom they looked for direction? Sadly they had rejected God’s invisible rule for a visible earthly ruler. God warned them of the burden a human king would bring and the limitations he would place on their freedom, but they persisted. The same lack of faith displayed in the Jews then, is seen today in people who continue to look for some “visible centre of unity” rather than be content with a faith focused on the invisible headship of Jesus Christ.
In the infant church, Christians were bound by their common faith, hope, and mutual love as members of the Christian family. They met together in their individual towns and villages as free individuals and communities, not dominated by any central authority. However, within fifty years of the Apostles things had changed radically.
In a relatively short period of time, calls for loyalty and submission to a visible authority had increased to such a degree that the overseer’s were instructed that it was their work to: –
“Order things properly and that of the brethren to submit, and not to disobey. Therefore submitting, they shall be saved”. The same instruction went on, “whoever disobeys your orders disobeys Christ” (The Clementine Homilies, Homily 11 Chapter 66 &70).
This kind of reasoning, that the presiding overseer represented Christ, and therefore whatever he instructed should be taken as though it came from Christ, created a severe stranglehold over a congregation. In many cases such leaders were not “examples to the flock” and did not display the humility of mind and servitude of spirit demanded of an under – shepherd of Christ’s flock.
Many people today, as in the past, accept without question that submission to a religious leader is identical with submission to Christ Himself. This has resulted in the removal of freedom of conscience and of a sense of personal responsibility before God. In such a situation the need for testing all teaching, for arriving at an individual conviction of truth, and exercising ones conscience, is discouraged in favour of an unquestioned submission to a constituted human authority.
The ultimate destiny of such a drift from God’s intended order, towards a structure based on human authority, removed the church from its original form, that of a simple brotherhood, united by a common faith and mutual love, to a religious institution with defined boundaries, beyond which there was, ultimately, no salvation.
It was by these means, that the teaching of the bible, that salvation is a gift of God, appropriated by faith in the sacrificial death of Jesus on the cross, was added to, enlarged upon and extended beyond its bounds. No one could be saved, it was now said, if they were not within the ” Church Organisation” and subject to a Bishop or overseer. Even Augustine, while recognised as the greatest Christian of his age, taught that there was no salvation outside the visible Catholic Church!
The reason it is important to grasp these lessons from history, particularly at this present time, is because in many places, God in His grace in restoring the pattern of the New Testament.
Many small groups today are not attached to any form of central authority, but are operating within the principals of mutual faith and love, in submission to the rule of Christ.
We would do well to give heed to the lessons we see taught in history. There are already within some groups, a movement entitled “Shepherding”. The dangers faced are similar to those, which corrupted the early church – heavy handed “Shepherds” who fail to meet the standards of 1 Peter 5: 3 – 5.
Each individual Christian has an obligation to assess the validity of the message presented to him. He/ She must make the decision, in the light of God’s word, as to whether or not the message is in accordance with the revelation of God. According to the teaching of Jesus (John 10; 4 – 5) the sheep themselves must judge whether or not the message they hear is from God. Men with authoritarian speech and dogmatism, void of tolerance and compassion, who claim to represent The Shepherd, will rightly have a foreign sound to the sheep.
There are sound reasons and biblical grounds for avoiding such. History leaves us in no doubt that to give place to such men in the assemblies of God’s people will ultimately lead to disaster.
(Excerpt from a booklet entitled ‘The Abuse of Authority’ which I wrote in 2002)