How did the Church go awry?
What can we learn from revisiting the early Church?
In the last few articles we had a snapshot of the early Church, The Way of the apostles. This should have been the first reel of a blockbuster movie, with the unique story of God becoming man and living on earth and rescuing folk through His sacrificial act. This would have been a story of life from the dead for the whole World, a sweeping story of hope and love and salvation, of individuals touched by the message and passing it on, from generation to generation until, in the final reel, all are saved and living in eternity with Father God.
Yes, The Great Director wrote the script, but, by and large, we never followed it. A rogue contributor inserted spoilers into the plot, to confuse, distract and lead the cast into other directions. Millions of minds were enticed away by false religions and philosophies, even more were trapped by their physical appetites. But these weren't the only casualties. Worst of all were the subtle attacks, leaving the victim innocently unaware. These came in the guise of ideas, celebrations of human cleverness, birthed in Ancient Greece. They came well recommended, rubber-stamped by many of the Church Fathers, as complementary, even enhancements, to The Way of the apostles. But these ideas were, in reality, spiritual parasites, insinuating themselves into the DNA of pure Christian doctrine, with one single objective ... divide and conquer. Doctrines became debatable, leading to deviations and divisions, heresies and denominations. A veritable riot of mixed metaphor! It gets worse ...
This process has continued unabated for nearly 2,000 years. As a result, it seems our only memory of The Way is of an old dog-eared black-and-white Polaroid picture, drifting on the breeze as it spirals downwards into the gutter, to be trodden on and forgotten as an irrelevance. A far-off memory of a time that we can never return to ... or can we?
What started up as a single group of twelve apostles and friends has exploded into thousands of fragments, cascading through history to our present age. Is it possible to piece it all together again and return to the very start of it all, or is this a fruitless task, made so by human progress and advancement? Have we migrated to a new land, more suited to our current lives or is there a way to reverse the sweep of time and re-engage in every way with the Church of Peter and Paul?
Things rarely stay the same. History shows us that we are restless creatures, always on the move. Empires come, have a look around, generally create havoc, then dwindle as others have their day. Men of thought and deed create new ways of living and dying. The great forces of "progress" trundle along, thrusting forth new ideas and scattering the old in their wake. Populations move, driven by conquest or material need and God looks on and must wonder, why couldn't they have just obeyed me and stayed in the garden?
But we are what we are. We are a product of our history and there's no way we can change the past. We may not be able to change it, but we can certainly learn from it. So what did those Greeks actually do to spoil the plot?
In my book How the Church lost The Truth I covered much of the background of how the dualism of Plato and rationalism of Aristotle did so much damage to the Church. But how did these ideas translate into the actions of the early Church? We've already looked at the "Acts of the apostles"; what were the Acts of the Church Fathers?
First a little glimpse into one facet of human nature. In the Lord of the Flies, a plane crashes on a deserted island and the only survivors are a group of children. They quickly organise themselves into groups with leaders, but re-organise themselves differently as some personalities start to dominate and seek power or influence. The film The Admirable Crichton is loosely similar, in a gentler way, replacing children with a cross-section of the English class system. The TV series Lost is yet another variation on the theme.
The issue is our tendency to organise ourselves into pecking orders or hierarchies, based usually on the forcefulness of the personalities of those higher up the chain. Of course, Christians are not exempt from this kind of behaviour, in fact some seem to absolutely revel in it!
The pattern set by the first apostles had been so simple. They would lend a hand and help get a local church started, including the appointment of a group of mature Christians, called elders, who would teach and oversee the flock and some other responsible folk, deacons, who would look after practical issues. The elders would specialise according to gift and ability - some would be pastors (shepherds), some bishops (overseers), some teachers, some preachers - all of equal status. Each local church would function in the same way, with the only link between them an informal one, defined by human relationships and mutual support. Then came the Gentile Church fathers, and everything changed ...
(This is an abridged extract from Steve's book To Life!)