To whom does the church belong?
I suppose most people would say it belongs to God, but the visible reality is very different. The institutional church is in fact a monstrosity that tries to displace Jesus as head of His assembly of believers. It has substituted man-made religion for faith and idols for Jesus, and we are so used to it that almost all of us have been deceived.
More than a quarter of the Bible is devoted to prophecy, so it is sad that so little attention is paid to it in most churches. Revelation contains the most comprehensive and detailed prophecy of the end time that we have. It is important to realise that the end time is all the time from the coming of the Holy Spirit until Jesus returns.
In Revelation 17, we see a prostitute who is the symbol of all false religion. She rides on a beast, which is the symbol of worldly power, just as for so much of history the church has been entangled with politics and power. She is specifically identified with Rome (v. 9) by the seven hills. The institution of the Roman Catholic church (not individual Catholic believers) is the prime example of false religion - superstition, legalism, idolatry and so on; however, all institutional churches share with it the chief characteristic of the prostitute - unfaithfulness, just as the unfaithful nations of Israel and Samaria were represented in the Old Testament as prostitutes. As we will see below, almost every church has replaced the headship of Jesus by the headship of men and so is actually unfaithful to him.
In the next chapter, this false religion is named Babylon, and its destruction is declared. All God's faithful people are warned to get out of it (Rev 18:4).
Jesus was certainly not confident that on his return he would find a glorious holy church filling the whole earth. Rather, he seems to expect always that the number of his true followers would be few: "narrow is the gate and constricted the way that leads to life, and few find it" (Matt 7:14).
What is the nature of the evil that has permeated the church? It is the substitution of worldly thinking for God's thinking and worldly ways for God's ways, and it began with the early church fathers. They introduced a number of practices which contradicted the teaching both of the apostles and of Jesus himself. For example:
They began the idea of a separate "priesthood". The New Testament specifically teaches that the Levitical priesthood is superseded by the priesthood of Jesus (Heb. 7:12), and that we all share his priesthood with Jesus (1 Pet. 2:5). Yet as early as 95, Clement of Rome was introducing the idea of a separation of clergy and laity, on a false analogy with the Old Testament: "The high priest has been given his own special services, the priests have been assigned their own place, and the Levites have their special ministrations enjoined on them. The layman is bound by the ordinances of the laity."
Along with a separate clergy, they introduced honorific titles for leaders (Reverend, Father, etc.), whereas Jesus specifically forbade any such thing. (Matt 23:8-11)
They introduced hierarchical authoritarian leadership - Jesus specifically forbade hierarchical and worldly forms of leadership (Matt 20:25-26) and in the New Testament "bishops" (overseers) and "presbyters" (elders) are two different words for the same people, servant leaders whose gifts are recognised by their fellow church members, but Ignatius of Antioch says: "...respect the Bishop as the counterpart of the Father, and the presbyters as the council of God and the college of the Apostles..."
The pattern of a New Testament meeting is given in 1 Cor 14:26ff: every member has something from Jesus to build up the church; they are even allowed to interrupt someone who is still prophesying, if they receive a revelation at that moment. There was no question of predetermining how a meeting should go, since its conduct depended on the leading of its head, Jesus, through the Holy Spirit dwelling in each member. Instead of Jesus as our head, we have set up men to lead us (1 Sam 8:7) and by the fourth century the church had established a fixed liturgy which left no room for the Spirit to lead at all. (Most supposedly non-liturgical churches have an informal liturgy which is just as rigid as those of the liturgical churches.)
The New Testament teaches that as soon as someone believes, he should be immersed (baptised) in water as his act of commitment; any Christian can and should baptise. In the second century church fathers began to claim that only the (single) bishop could authorise baptism and they delayed baptism for adult believers, under the false doctrine that sins committed after baptism could not be forgiven. Their successors turned baptism into a magical act and baptised infants who were unable to make any commitment.
In the New Testament, the Lord's supper is a full communal meal. The church fathers turned this love feast into a sterile ritual and lost sight of the body of Christ (which is the assembly of believers) by seeing it instead in the bread of "communion".
The fathers began to reverence the tradition of the church, in opposition to the New Testament, just as the Pharisees had "made the word of God null and void by their tradition" (Mark 7:13)
Christian teaching in the New Testament was by dialogue and discussion. (Even Paul's late-night session in Troas (Acts 20:7) was not preaching in the modern sense. The word used is the one from which we get "dialogue".) When certain pagan orators were converted, they introduced sermons - monologues to a passive audience, which were greatly admired as an entertainment. Sermons continue to this day, with as little spiritual benefit as when they were first introduced. (Tertullian complained in the third century how little influence sermons had.)
As a result of all this disobedience, the church was plunged into darkness for more than a thousand years, until the Reformation. Even then, the reformers did not return to the practice of the New Testament, but continued nearly all of the practices of the Mediaeval church, merely substituting sermons for the mass.
The very existence of denominations is disobedience to God.
1 Corinthians 1:10-13 shows that factions such as our modern denominations are equivalent to dividing Christ. The only biblical basis for a church is the home - a group of believers small enough to fit in one house - and the locality - a group of home churches within a close enough distance that they can all be regarded as being in one place. Any other division is a departure from the New Testament pattern.
In two of the letters to the seven churches in the first part of the Revelation, Jesus refers to "the practices of the Nicolaitans, which I hate". If we examine the root meaning of the word, we find it is derived from "nikao" (to overcome or prevail over) and "laos" (the people - in the New Testament, specifically the people of God). So the Nicolaitans are those who prevail over or dominate the people of God by introducing worldly ideas of authority into the church, and it is natural that Jesus should hate their practices, because they are supplanting him in his proper place as head of the church. The Nicolaitans are associated in the letter to the church at Pergamos with Balaam, whose name also means "lord of the people".
The evil effects of the current church system are manifold.
God is calling us to put an end to non-biblical practices and to let Jesus rebuild the church as an organism rather than an organisation, the true family of God really operating as a family.
It is indisputable that the current practices of the church do not match those of the New Testament church. Acts and the epistles give us a picture of the church as Jesus designed it; that design should be taken as normative, unless the scripture itself allows us to depart from it.
Jesus says, "If you love me, you will keep my words" (John 14:23).
If we wish to receive God's blessing, we must return his love by asking him to help us keep his words. Pray for a devotion to Jesus and to his word in the bible, and allow that devotion to lead us to renounce all tradition that contradicts his word and to give obedience to him alone.
In practical terms, we need to renounce allegiance to any denomination, renounce worldly ideas of leadership and seek unity with all Christians in our locality.
Jesus says to us all, "Give me back my church!"
26th June 2003
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