What Happened to the Beliefs of the Early Church?

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What Happened to the Beliefs of the Early Church?

MP3 Audio (48.92 MB)

Søren Kierkegaard, the 19th-century Danish writer and religious philosopher, wrote that the “Christianity of the New Testament simply does not exist.” He questioned how popular Christianity had strayed so far from the way of life described and practiced in the Bible.

This sounds odd to most people today, but he was deadly serious. Is it possible that today’s Christianity is fundamentally different from the teachings of the apostles? Some scholars and serious students of the Bible have recognized and acknowledged that the practices of the early Church varied greatly from those of today.

Norbert Brox, professor of early church history at the University of Regensburg, Germany, described the context and perspective of the early Church in these terms:

“Thus the first [Christian] communities were groups that formed within Judaism . . . Christians believed as before in the God of Israel: their Bible was the Bible of the Jews . . . They continued to observe (as Jesus did) the Jewish practice of temple worship and law (Acts 2.46; 10.14), and gave outsiders the impression of being a Jewish sect (Acts 24:5; Acts 24:14; Acts 28:22), not a new religion. They themselves probably also simply thought of themselves as Jews” (A Concise History of the Early Church, 1996, p. 4).

This is what we see in the Bible as recorded in the book of Acts and the letters of the apostles. But things would change dramatically, as we see in the state of the Church in the second century. Historian Jesse Hurlbut says of this time of transformation: “We name the last generation of the first century, from 68 to 100 A.D., ‘The Age of Shadows,’ partly because the gloom of persecution was over the church, but more especially because of all the periods in the [church’s] history, it is the one about which we know the least. We have no longer the clear light of the Book of Acts to guide us; and no author of that age has filled the blank in the history . . .

“For fifty years after St. Paul’s life a curtain hangs over the church, through which we strive vainly to look; and when at last it rises, about 120 A.D. with the writings of the earliest church fathers, we find a church in many aspects very different from that in the days of St. Peter and St. Paul” (The Story of the Christian Church, 1970, p. 33). How did this transformation in the practices of Christianity come about?

Major shifts in Christianity

Only a few decades after Jesus Christ’s death and resurrection, some who presented themselves as faithful ministers of Christ began to introduce heretical teachings. The apostle Paul described such men and their methods: “For such are false apostles, deceitful workers, transforming themselves into apostles of Christ. And no wonder! For Satan himself transforms himself into an angel of light. Therefore it is no great thing if his ministers also transform themselves into ministers of righteousness . . .” (2 Corinthians 11:13-15, emphasis added throughout).

These teachers appeared to represent Christ at a time when the masses of humanity lacked any significant education. To the unschooled believers of that time, their teachings probably seemed reasonable and even sounded right. Yet these teachers were really instruments of deception in Satan’s hands, used to lead others astray. Many may not have even realized their own errors and misguided motives.

Over time the damage was done. The apostle John, apparently the last survivor among the 12 original disciples, wrote of one false minister who had risen to power within the Church. This man was openly rejecting John’s emissaries and excommunicating faithful members (3 John 9-10). This is a shocking example of how bad conditions had become in the Church as the first century drew to a close.

With John’s writings, the books and letters that would form the New Testament were complete. With his passing, however, reliable eyewitness accounts of events and changes in the Church largely ceased. We are left with confusing and contradictory accounts for the next several centuries.

Persecution leads to changes

Part of the lack of information about this time stems from persecution against the Church. Under Emperor Nero (A.D. 54-68), Christians were blamed for burning the city of Rome, and many were killed—including the apostles Paul and Peter. Later all inhabitants of the Roman Empire were required to worship the emperor as a god. Christians and Jews who, in obedience to God’s commandments, refused to comply with the edict were vigorously persecuted. For several centuries, waves of persecution engulfed Christianity and Judaism.

Jews living in the Holy Land revolted twice against Roman rule—in the first century and the second. The later rebellion in particular brought persecution of Jews and Judaism. Emperor Hadrian (117-138), on capturing Jerusalem, razed it and built a new city that Jews were forbidden even to enter. He also banned circumcision and observance of the Sabbath.

Professor Brox describes the effect on the Church: “The Jewish Christians in Palestine had been driven out in the First Jewish War (66-70) but then had returned to Jerusalem; however, after the Bar Kokhba revolt, the Second Jewish War against the Romans (132-135), they had to leave the land because, as Jews, they had been circumcised, and all Jews were now banned on pain of death. So for the moment that meant the end of this [Jerusalem] church” (Brox, p. 19).

From the scanty historical records it appears that, to avoid punishment, a significant number of Christians began to avoid identification with Judaism during this time of intense persecution of Jews. The more visible portion of Christianity began a significant transition from the teachings of the apostles to an anti-Jewish religious philosophy.

Former practices held in common with Judaism—such as resting and worshipping on the weekly Sabbath day (the seventh day of the week, from sunset Friday to sunset Saturday) and keeping the God-ordained festivals found in the Bible—rapidly began to wane as new customs crept into the Church. Most who identified as Christians failed to summon up the courage to face continual persecution for remaining faithful to the customs handed down by the apostles of Christ.

The Passover-Easter debate

The church historian Eusebius, reporting on the Council of Nicaea (325), describes a debate going back to the second century between Polycarp, a disciple of the apostle John who urged Christians to continue to keep the Passover as a memorial of Christ’s death, and Anicetus, bishop of Rome (155-166), who advocated a celebration of Christ’s resurrection on Easter Sunday. Later, bishop Victor I of Rome (189-199) issued an ultimatum that all were “to follow the Sunday practice of the Roman church and most other churches” (Brox, p. 124).

At Nicaea the new custom of Easter won out over the biblical Passover. The Roman emperor Constantine decreed that those who refused to follow the Roman church’s lead were heretics and to be excommunicated. His resulting letter showed the depth of his feelings regarding practices he considered “Jewish.”

“It appeared an unworthy thing,” he wrote, “that in the celebration of this most holy feast [Easter] we should follow the practice of the Jews, who have impiously defiled their hands with enormous sin, and are, therefore, deservedly afflicted with blindness of soul . . . Let us then have nothing in common with the detestable Jewish crowd: for we have received from our Savior a different way . . .

“Strive and pray continually that the purity of your soul may not seem in anything to be sullied by fellowship with the custom of these most wicked men . . . All should unite in desiring that which sound reason appears to demand, avoiding all participation in the perjured conduct of the Jews” (Eusebius, Life of Constantine 3, 18-19, Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, 1979, second series, Vol. 1, pp. 524-525).

Constantine endorses ‘Christianity’

Constantine’s reign as emperor (306-337) dramatically changed the direction Christianity would take. Under his rule, Christianity became the official religion of the Roman Empire, and he was baptized (albeit on his deathbed).

But what was the nature of the Christianity he endorsed?

By now, much had already changed. Charles Guignebert, professor of the history of Christianity at the University of Paris, observes: “Contemplate the Christian Church at the beginning of the fourth century, therefore, and some difficulty will be experienced in recognizing in her the community of Apostolic times, or rather, we shall not be able to recognize it at all . . .” (The Early History of Christianity, 1927, p. 122).

Consider also the noted British historian Paul Johnson’s conclusions regarding Constantine: “He himself appears to have been a sun-worshipper, one of a number of late-pagan cults which had observances in common with the Christians. Thus the followers of Isis adored a madonna nursing her holy child; the cult of Attis and Cybele celebrated a day of blood and fasting, followed by the Hilaria resurrection-feast, a day of joy, on 25 March; the elitist Mithraics, many of whom were senior army officers, ate a sacred meal. Constantine was almost certainly a Mithraic, and his triumphal arch, built after his ‘conversion’, testifies to the Sun-god, or ‘unconquered sun’.

“Many Christians did not make a clear distinction between this sun-cult and their own. They referred to Christ ‘driving his chariot across the sky’: they held their services on Sunday, knelt towards the East and had their nativity-feast on 25 December, the birthday of the sun at the winter solstice. During the later pagan revival under the Emperor Julian many Christians found it easy to apostasize because of this confusion; . . . Constantine never abandoned sun-worship and kept the sun on his coins . . .

“[Constantine] no doubt shared the view, popular among professional soldiers, that all religious cults should be respected, to appease their respective gods . . . Many of his ecclesiastical arrangements indicate that he wanted a state Church, with the clergy as civil servants. His own role was not wholly removed from that of the pagan God-emperor—as witness the colossal heads and statues of himself with which he littered his empire—though he preferred the idea of a priest-king.

“How could the Christian Church, apparently quite willingly, accommodate this weird megalomaniac in its theocratic system? Was there a conscious bargain? Which side benefited most from this unseemly marriage between Church and State? Or, to put it another way, did the empire surrender to Christianity, or did Christianity prostitute itself to the empire?” (A History of Christianity, 1976, pp. 67-69).

This is a remarkable admission in light of the fact that the apostle John, as recorded in Revelation 17, saw in a prophetic vision a woman representing a great false church acting as prostitute with the world’s kings (to learn more, see “Is the Protestant Reformation Being Undone?”).

From Sabbath to Sunday

Constantine’s affection for sun worship led him to formalize a change in the weekly day of rest for Christianity. “In 321 Constantine introduced Sunday as a weekly day of rest for the society which he had Christianized as part of his religious policy, and on it no work was done . . . The rest from work on the Christian Sunday was derived from the Jewish sabbath commandment, with which Sunday intrinsically had no connection . . . So the present-day Sunday ultimately arises . . . through the state legislation of late antiquity” (Brox, p. 105).

For a time some in what was now a largely transformed Christianity continued to observe the Sabbath and other festivals kept by Jesus and the apostles. This was not to last.

Says Robin Fox, lecturer in ancient history at Oxford University, “In the 430s, the Christian Council of Laodicea ruled in detail against Christian observance of the Jewish Sabbath, their acceptance of unleavened bread from Jews and their keeping of Jewish festivals” (Pagans and Christians, 1987, p. 482).

Transformed by paganism

While the practices of the apostles were being banned, traditions from other religions were being incorporated and relabeled as Christian. Writes historian John Romer:

“Subtly, so subtly that the bishops themselves had not seen them, the old gods had entered their churches like the air of the Mediterranean. And they live still in Christian ritual, in the iconography and the festivals of Christianity . . . The ancient sign of life, the ankh, which the gods had carried in their sculptures for thousands of years, was easily transformed into the Christian cross; the figure of Isis nursing her child Horus, Isis Lactans, became the figure of the Virgin with Jesus at her breast . . .

“At Rome, Romulus and Remus were swapped for the biblical saints Peter and Paul. And still in the fifth century, the Pope had to stop the early morning congregation of St Peter’s from walking up the church steps backwards so as not to offend Sol, the rising sun god.

“Similarly, 25 December, now Christ’s birthday, was also the day of Sol Invictus’ [the unconquered sun’s] festival . . . celebrated by cutting green branches and hanging little lights on them, and presents were given out in the god’s name. Sol’s weekly festival Sol-day—Sunday—became the Christian Sabbath . . .” (Testament: The Bible and History, 1988, pp. 230-231).

To expand the universal church’s power and influence, its leadership welcomed many new converts—and many new practices—into the church. Professor Guignebert describes this process: “Now at the beginning of the fifth century, the ignorant and the semi-Christians thronged into the Church in numbers . . . They had forgotten none of their pagan customs . . . The bishops of that period had to content themselves with redressing, as best they could, and in experimental fashion, the shocking malformations of the Christian faith which they perceived around them . . .

“[Properly instructing converts] was out of the question; they had to be content with teaching them no more than the symbol of baptism and then baptizing them en masse, postponing until a later date the task of eradicating their superstitions, which they preserved intact . . . This ‘later date’ never arrived, and the Church adapted to herself, as well as she could, them and their customs and beliefs. On their side, they were content to dress their paganism in a Christian cloak” (p. 208-210).

Guignebert describes the resulting bizarre synthesis that now formed Christianity: “The ancient festivals [are now] kept as holidays and celebrated in the country parts, and the Church can only neutralize their effect by turning them to account for her own profit. There is nothing stranger, from this point of view, than the instructions given by [Pope] Gregory the Great to the monk Augustine, his missionary to England.

“He is to transform the temples into churches, after they have been ceremonially cleansed; and to replace the devil-sacrifices by processions in honor of some saint, with an offering of oxen to the glory of God, and the distribution of the flesh among the congregation. Moreover, the king of East Anglia, Redwald, after his baptism and Christian confession, is careful to keep opposite the altar in his church at which mass is celebrated, another altar where the sacrifices demanded by the ancient gods are carried out” (p. 214).

Guignebert also observes, “It is sometimes very difficult to tell exactly from which pagan rite a particular Christian rite is derived, but it remains certain that the spirit of pagan ritualism became by degrees impressed upon Christianity, to such an extent that at last the whole of it might be found distributed through its ceremonies” (p. 121).

What does God say?

During these early centuries, Christianity was radically transformed. The leaders of the most highly visible form of Christianity—the Roman Catholic Church, now supported by the power of the state—ignored God’s instruction and substituted one pagan practice after another, even as they persecuted those who still held to the teachings of Jesus and the apostles.

They disregarded God when He warned: “Take heed to yourself that you are not ensnared to follow them [the pagan nations], after they are destroyed from before you, and that you do not inquire after their gods, saying, ‘How did these nations serve their gods? I also will do likewise.’ You shall not worship the Lord your God in that way . . . Whatever I command you, be careful to observe it; you shall not add to it nor take away from it” (Deuteronomy 12:30-32).

The apostles understood God’s instruction and steadfastly resisted the kind of changes that later infiltrated the Church. After all, this instruction was part of “the Holy Scriptures,” the only Bible they had at the time (2 Timothy 3:14-17).

Although many blatantly non-Christian practices were toned down in later centuries, even cursory research into many popular practices reveals their roots.

But what is equally regrettable is that, by abandoning the practices of Jesus and the apostles, so many are missing out on a fuller understanding of true Christianity.

Rest assured, there are still Christians who faithfully follow the practices and teachings of Jesus and the apostles who enjoy the blessing of discerning God’s great plan for men and women everywhere. They have discovered the “narrow” way of life that few find (Matthew 7:14). And with God’s help, you can find it too!


Jesus’ Warnings of Abandonment of Truth

Jesus Christ forewarned that men would change His teachings. He was right. Is it possible that Christianity was radically transformed in its earliest centuries? Surprising as it may seem, both Jesus Christ and the apostles warned of changes that would come in the Church. Were these empty warnings, or did Christ foretell a subtle yet deadly threat to the religion that bears His name?

Notice the ominous tone of His warnings to His followers: “Beware of false prophets, who come to you in sheep’s clothing, but inwardly they are ravenous wolves” (Matthew 7:15).

He explained: “Not everyone who says to Me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ shall enter the kingdom of heaven, but he who does the will of My Father in heaven. Many will say to Me in that day, ‘Lord, Lord, have we not prophesied in Your name, cast out demons in Your name, and done many wonders in Your name?’ And then I will declare to them, ‘I never knew you; depart from Me, you who practice lawlessness!’” (Matthew 7:21-23).

Jesus knew that some would feign obedience to His teachings, but their actions would reveal their motives. “But why do you call Me ‘Lord, Lord,’ and do not do the things which I say?” He asked them (Luke 6:46).

How would this be possible? Shortly before His death, Jesus described to His disciples the trends that would begin in the near future and culminate before His yet-future return to earth. He warned of false teachers who would “rise up and deceive many” (Matthew 24:11). Many of these would claim to come in His name and to represent Him (Matthew 24:5), yet they would teach a different message. Many would fall prey to their deceptive teachings, Christ warned.

Notice that the deception would center on His person. They would rightly say Jesus was the Christ, yet deceive many. The issue turns on obedience to Christ (Luke 6:46). Worshiping Jesus Christ should always be accompanied by keeping the commandments of God. These deceptive trends would include “false christs and false prophets [who] will rise and show great signs and wonders to deceive, if possible, even the elect” (Matthew 24:24). So great will be their beguiling powers and teachings, said Jesus, that even those firmly grounded in biblical truth would be in danger of being led astray.

Did this great work of deception begin in the Church as Jesus prophesied? Yes, it did. The apostle Paul issued this sad prediction to the leaders of the congregation in Ephesus: “For I know this, that after my departure savage wolves will come in among you, not sparing the flock. Also from among yourselves men will rise up, speaking perverse things, to draw away the disciples after themselves” (Acts 20:29-30).

Echoing Jesus’ warnings about those who would distort His words to teach lawlessness—disobedience to the instructions in God’s law—Paul observed that “the mystery of lawlessness [rejection of God’s laws] is already at work” (2 Thessalonians 2:7) and will continue until Christ puts an end to it at His return (2 Thessalonians 2:8).

The apostle Peter also warned of this deceitful influence at work in the early Church. “But there were also false prophets among the people, even as there will be false teachers among you, who will secretly bring in destructive heresies, even denying the Lord who bought them, and bring on themselves swift destruction” (2 Peter 2:1).

In the same way the apostle John cautioned the brethren in the Church, “Beloved, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits, whether they are of God; because many false prophets have gone out into the world” (1 John 4:1).

Considering these warnings and statements, we would do well to examine the roots of Christianity and see whether these trends did, in fact, influence those calling themselves Christian—and possibly what you believe!


What Did the Early Church Believe and Practice?

The book of Acts is an eyewitness account of the early Church from Christ’s death until about A.D. 60. Chapter 2 records the beginning of the Church, when God sent His Spirit to 120 followers of Jesus Christ.

Many Bible readers are familiar with the miraculous events of that day—of the place they were assembled filling with the sound of a mighty wind and what appeared to be tongues of fire alighting on those gathered. Another miracle occurred as those people, now filled with God’s Spirit, began to speak in the languages of people from many lands so that all could understand their words.

Often overlooked in this account is the day on which these events occurred, Pentecost (Acts 2:1), one of the festivals God commanded for His people many centuries before (Leviticus 23). In revealing these festivals, God said, “These are My feasts . . . the feasts of the Lord, holy convocations” (Leviticus 23:2-4). God proclaimed observance of these festivals to be “a statute forever throughout your generations” (Leviticus 23:14; Leviticus 23:21; Leviticus 23:31: Leviticus 2341).

The Gospels show that Jesus Christ observed the same festivals (Matthew 26:17-19; John 7:10-14; John 7:37-38). Both the book of Acts and Paul’s letters show the apostles keeping these festivals during the decades after Christ’s crucifixion and resurrection (Acts 2:1-4; Acts 18:21; Acts 20:6; Acts 20:16; Acts 27:9).

Most churches teach that the festivals were “nailed to the cross,” somehow annulled by Christ’s death. Yet the unmistakable record of the Bible is that the early Church continued to observe them, but with greater grasp of their spiritual significance.

Speaking of one of these God-given feasts, the apostle Paul urged the church in Corinth—a mixed group of gentile and Jewish believers—to “keep the feast, not with old leaven, nor with the leaven of malice and wickedness, but with the unleavened bread of sincerity and truth” (1 Corinthians 5:8). Paul was clearly referring to the Feast of Unleavened Bread (see Leviticus 23:6; Deuteronomy 16:16).

Paul explained the significance of the Passover (1 Corinthians 5:7; Leviticus 23:5) and gave instructions to these gentile and Jewish believers on how to properly observe this ceremony (1 Corinthians 11:23-28).

The many references in the Gospels, Acts and Paul’s epistles prompt an obvious question: Since Jesus, the apostles and the early Church—Jew and gentile alike—kept these days, why don’t churches teach and observe them today? After all, Paul directly tied the feasts to Jesus, His purpose and His sacrifice for mankind (1 Corinthians 5:7).

The Gospels and the book of Acts are equally clear that Christ, the disciples and the early Church kept the weekly Sabbath—from sunset Friday to sunset Saturday, the seventh day of the week—as their day of rest and worship (Mark 6:2; Luke 4:31-32; Luke 13:10; Acts 13:14-44; Acts 18:4). Jesus even called Himself “Lord of the Sabbath” (Mark 2:28).

It was Jesus’ custom to go to the synagogue on Sabbath days to worship (Luke 4:16). Contrary to the teaching of those who say that Paul abandoned the Sabbath, it was his custom, too, to go to the synagogue every Sabbath (Acts 17:1-3), using the opportunity to teach others about Jesus Christ.

The weekly Sabbath is another of God’s festivals, like those mentioned earlier. It is, in fact, the first of His feasts listed (Leviticus 23:1-4). It is included in the Ten Commandments (Exodus 20:8-11; Deuteronomy 5:12-15).

As with God’s other feasts, the Sabbath is ignored by the overwhelming majority of churches. Rather than keeping the Sabbath as God commanded, most churches meet on the first day of the week—Sunday—a day nowhere commanded in the Bible as a day of worship. Why? If we are to observe any day as a weekly day of rest and worship, shouldn’t it be the same day Jesus Christ and the apostles kept? (Be sure to request or download our free study guide Sunset to Sunset: God’s Sabbath Rest to learn more.)

We also find other differences in teaching and practice. Many churches teach that obedience to God’s law is unnecessary, that Christ kept it for us or it was “nailed to the cross” with Christ. This is directly contrary to Jesus’ own words (Matthew 4:4; Matthew 5:17-19) and the teaching and practice of the apostles (Acts 24:14; Acts 25:8; Romans 7:12; Romans 7:22; 1 Corinthians 7:19; 2 Timothy 3:15-17).

Following Christ’s example, the apostles powerfully preached about Jesus Christ’s return to establish the coming Kingdom of God (Luke 4:43; Luke 8:1; Luke 21:27; Luke 21:31; Acts 1:3; Acts 8:12; Acts 14:22; Acts 19:8; Acts 28:23; Acts 28:31). But Paul warned that, even in his day, some were already preaching “a different gospel” (2 Corinthians 11:4; Galatians 1:6).

We see much confusion in churches about what the gospel is. Most view it as a message about Christ’s life story and His death to “save” us without really understanding why He came and why He had to die and without proclaiming the message of God’s Kingdom that Christ Himself taught (Mark 1:14-15).

Similarly, Jesus and the apostles did not teach that the righteous ascend to heaven at death (John 3:13; Acts 2:29; Acts 2:34), and they understood that man does not possess an immortal soul (Ezekiel 18:4; Ezekiel 18:20; Matthew 10:28) that would spend eternity in either heaven or hell. (For the truth on these matters, download or request our free study guides The Gospel of the Kingdom and Heaven and Hell: What Does the Bible Really Teach?)

Furthermore, nowhere do we find popular religious holidays such as Christmas approved in the Bible. The only time Easter is mentioned in the Bible (Acts 12:4, King James Version), it is a blatant mistranslation of the Greek word for Passover. Lent and its practices are nowhere found (see our free study guide Holidays or Holy Days: Does It Matter Which Days We Observe?).

These are some of the major differences between the Christianity of the time of Christ and the apostles and that commonly practiced today. Shouldn’t you look into your Bible to see if your beliefs and practices square with what Jesus Christ and the apostles practiced and taught? As noted, we have many resources that can help in your study of God’s Word. Download or request your free copies today!

—From our free study guide The Church Jesus Built.