It is generally held that the churches of Christ, as we know them today in this country, arose from the Restoration Movement of the 19th century. [cref 271 Thomas and Alexander Campbell] were major influences during this period along with many others. Some have wondered where the church was during those years from around the 4th century AD until the 19th century. It is a good question and deserves a good answer.
Even before the end of the apostolic era, currents were swirling which forecast the coming departure from the faith. Paul warned sternly that trouble was upon the horizon (1 Timothy 4:1-5) in what is seen as a clear reference to the Roman church. 2 Timothy 4:3,4 has Paul again predicting the time when men would demand to hear pleasing preaching based not upon truth but upon things that make them feel good and comfortable.
Many warnings in Scripture point to the coming of the antichrist. In fact there were many antichrists who perverted truth (1 John 2:18, 1 John 2:22; 1 John 4:3; 2 John 1:7). Paul’s many epistles were, in part, encouragements to avoid a departure from the truth. He dealt with the judaizing teachers and with an incipient form of gnosticism that would begin in earnest in the second century.
Although disappointing it is nonetheless true that the church had begun to drift away from truth even before the apostles passed to their great reward.
A review of the writings of the church fathers from about 100 AD until the mid 300’s further demonstrates the slow but deliberate movement into apostasy.
Perhaps the first major milestone in the predicted apostasy occurred in 325 AD when Roman Emperor Constantine the Great called to assembly the Council of Nicaea. It was this council that gave rise to the Roman Catholic church which represents a massive apostasy from the truth. The church that grew from this council was nothing like the church of the New Testament.
The Darkness of Catholicism
The signifigance of the Roman church cannot be overstated in religious history. It’s errant teaching coupled with the strength of the most powerful empire the world had known suppressed sound teaching. Christians fled from the presence of the church and practiced their faith underground and away from the glare of Latin attention. Often the church would preside over horrendous persecutions designed to punish those who dare taught against the official body of doctrine. The excesses of the Catholic Church’s Inquisition are well known.
We have little or no reliable knowledge of the Lord’s church during this time. It is my belief, although I cannot prove it to a certainty, that some remnant of the church persisted even in these dark days. Jesus did say that “the gates of Hades would not prevail against it” (Matthew 16:18). If the church was annihilated in those repressive days, there would be no one to represent the gospel to the world. While possible, it seems unlikely.
Attempts to Reform
Courageous men attempted to “fix” the catholic church from within. Martin Luther is perhaps the best known reformer. For the work they did, we salute them, but they did not go far enough. It was shortly after these attempts began that splinter churches began to form. In each case some point of doctrine was disputed and men began to break away and form denominations. Previously unknown, these splinter groups or sects litter the religious landscape today. Baptist, Methodists, Anglican, Presbyterian, Lutheran, Episcopalian and many many others all trace their heritage back to the post-reformation period.
While much good was accomplished, none of these groups every quite made it back to the Bible. In the process of denominating themselves, they established doctrines and creeds foreign to Scripture. John Calvin, one of the central figures in the Reformation, established a system of faith that underlies most all denominations today. Bearing his name, Calvinism will be responsible for the loss of untold millions of souls.
During this period, from the 1500’s until the 1800’s, it is quite likely that true New Testament churches arose. This represented a period of increasing religious tolerance and one may reasonably assume that some took advantage of it and did return fully to the Bible
Restoration is Different from Reformation
The Restoration movement is not synonymous with the Reformation. During the 19th century men had begun to turn from the various sects and seek unity upon the basis of the Bible alone. The wide variety of creeds made it difficult, if not impossible, to unify believers in Christ under a common banner. Much of the intellectual underpinnings of the Restoration actually began in Scotland but quickly found receptive soil in the United States.
One good example of the attitudes prevalent during the Restoration is the Last Will and Testament of the Springfield Presbytery signed by six members who sought to dissolve that sectarian body and, in the words of document “sink into union with body of Christ at large.”
During this period of time, those persons in the Restoration Movement used a variety of names for the church. Some of their doctrines were imperfect but more than ever before, men had reached back to the Bible way of doing things. They did so not because of some direct lineage but because of a return to the word of God.
Must There Be A Link
It is not necessary to demonstrate a lineage or heritage back to the original church. The onmly necessary link is the Bible itself. All men can stand upon the truth of Scripture and become unified in Christ.
The parable of the sower (Matthew 13:1-23; Mark 4:1-25; Luke 8:1-15) makes clear that the Word of God is seed. Wherever good seed is planted crops will grow – not just any crop – but the same crop from which the seed originally came.
Today men can and must restore their religious practices to those approved of by our Lord. When we do so, we enjoy the same link to Jesus that the very first Christians had.
Where was the church of Christ before the Restoration? I cannot be sure. But I do know where it is today. It stands squarely in the middle of the Scriptures in full submission to the authority of Jesus Christ.
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