Believing Him to be the expected Messiah and that the promise of God would be fulfilled through Him, they followed Him everywhere as He preached the Gospel of the Kingdom of God. Their hearts and minds were fully satisfied by being with Jesus. Coming to realize that He was not only a great personality but God, they worshipped Him with the same attitude of heart as they had for God. Quite obviously the disciples' faith and experience was centered in Christ Himself.
The death of Jesus temporarily threw the disciples into confusion and darkness, but His resurrection restored even stronger conviction to their hearts. Then they began to have intimate fellowship with Him as the risen Lord.
When Jesus ascended to be with the Father, He asked the Father to send the "Paraclete," the Spirit. After this the life of the disciples was united to that of their risen Lord by the indwelling of the Spirit, and they lived a life of "Koinonia"--fellowship--with Him and with all fellow believers. Even in the case of Paul, who had not been with Jesus during His earthly life, this experience of spiritual unity with the risen Lord was most vivid and real, as we can see in his expressions, "To me to live is Christ" and "I am crucified with Christ; nevertheless I live; yet not I, but Christ liveth in me."
The hope of the disciples' Christian lives was the return of Christ, for whom they waited. Their eyes were fixed on the Lord Himself as the One who was, and is, and will appear again.
To sum up, the center of the life of faith for the disciples was Jesus Christ Himself in their spiritual Koinonia (fellowship) with Him. They were baptized in His name, prayed to Him and worked miracles in His name. They found new life in Him personally, and the purifying hope of His return ruled their lives.
Through the disciples' witness to the risen Christ many were converted to faith in Him. Being baptized, these converts devoted themselves to the teaching of the apostles, fellowship with one another, to the breaking of bread and to prayer. Many wonders and signs were done through the apostles. All who believed were together and had all things in common--they sold their possessions and goods and distributed them to all, as any had need. Day by day, attending the temple together and breaking bread in their house, they partook of food with glad and generous hearts, praising God and having favor with all the people (Acts 2:24-47).
These were the practices of the early Ekklesia, but none of these practices were the center of their faith. Their faith was concentrated upon Christ Himself. Their living union with Him was the center of their lives and consequently of the Ekklesia.
The apostles did not think of baptism and the Lord's supper as sacramental rites (See John 4:2; 1 Cor.1:17; also refer to the Gospels and especially to Luke 22:19, 20 in the RSV). Though they practiced baptism and the Lord's supper as the most valuable expressions of their faith, it cannot be said that they made these acts of fellowship the center of their faith or of the Ekklesia.
Neither did the apostles establish any creeds or doctrines. Even the so-called Pauline theology was not a theology in the present-day meaning of the word. It was only Paul's method of explaining faith. It was his expression of his fellowship with God and Christ, his witness to his having koinonia with the Lord. To understand Paul's explanation of his faith is one thing, but to have koinonia with the Lord is another. The former should not be taken for the latter and made the center of faith.
The center of Paul's faith was union with Christ in the Spirit; the same was true of John, as we shall see later, and their theological explanation was only their effort to make the central Person more real to other believers. They were not theologizing, but testifying!
In the apostolic age there were some in the group of believers who labored for the Ekklesia, such as the elders and deacons, etc. But these words were only names for those who served the Ekklesia because they were fitted for such ministry. There was not yet anything like an established institution to select them for those labors. Their services were naturally recognized as they demonstrated among the believers their charismata, or gifts of the Spirit.
Authority as exercised in the New Testament Ekklesia was not of the legal or institutional kind such as we conceive of today. Like the Lord before them (cf. Mark 11:28-30), leaders among those early believers possessed only heavenly, or spiritual, authority.
Their authority was recognized and followed when, and just because, they spoke in the evident power and truth of the Holy Spirit. Even the authority of the apostles was not legal or organizational, being enforced only by the conviction of the Spirit in men's hearts. In just the same way, the service of the bishops (elders) and deacons was completely on a spiritual basis.
Christians in the Apostolic age never thought of making an institutional organization the center of the Ekklesia, nor of substituting human service or earthly authority for the activity and authority of the Spirit in their midst.
The Catholic Period
When the Emperor Constantine made Christianity a national religion, using it as a means for the spiritual unity of the whole empire, the bloody persecutions of the Roman Emperors ceased at last. After that Christianity rapidly spread over the whole territory of the Roman Empire. In this expansion Christianity developed the organization that made it "the Church," and this institutionalized system became more and more centralized, until at last the Roman bishop became the "Father" of the whole Roman Church.
European civilization is a combination of Greek, Roman and Hebrew cultures. The Greeks are the source of its philosophical and aesthetic elements, the Romans of its legal and political nature, and the Hebrews of the religious phases of European civilization.
Christianity in the Roman Empire could not escape being influenced by Roman culture. Imperial authority, deriving its power now from political and ecclesiastical union, could declare all citizens of the state Christians and members of the institutional Church. As a result, the true nature of the Ekklesia, as the living Body of Christ, was lost within the Church, and the latter became just a legal body regulated by Church law instead of the Spirit. Faith, like the laws of the state, was reduced to a creed, formulated for and remembered by the common members of the Church. Those who did not accept the creed, just as those who did not obey the law, were judged as heretics and punished.
When Christianity was transformed into such a legal institution, it could no more be expected that communion or koinonia with God and with Christ would be the center of the Ekklesia. The center of faith was transferred from spiritual union with Christ, as the Head of the Ekklesia, to the legal government of the Pope, as the earthly representative of the Kingdom of God. The spiritual Ekklesia was replaced by the earthly institutional Church whose center was the Pope. In this Church the fellowship of Christians was no longer the Body of Christ which has life-union with Him, and Christ was no longer the Head who governs His Body, the Ekklesia.
With the establishment of the institutional Church, the worship of God in spirit and truth died out and was replaced by ritual and formal worship. No more could the words of John, that "the anointing (of the Spirit) which you received from Him abides in you, and so you have no need that any one should teach you, as His anointing (i.e. the Spirit) teaches you about everything . . . " (I John 2:27), be applied to the Christians. The members of the Church were now taught only by the ordained officials of the Church.
This was the Roman Church, which insisted that outside of her fellowship there could be no salvation. Without the sanction of the Pope no one could enter the Kingdom of God, because he alone kept the keys of heaven. And without taking part in the prescribed rituals and sacraments conducted by the Church's ordained officials, one was not only unable to be a true member of the Church, but was not even considered a Christian.
Not only did the Church teach this, but these principles became the laws of the Church. Those who refused to obey these regulations were ultimately excommunicated, losing as well their legal rights as citizens and the protection of the state. To stand against the institutional Catholic Church came to be far more serious a matter than to stand against the government of the state. Under this coercion men's minds were deprived of the right to freely seek truth and real faith. Those who did hunger and thirst after faith and spiritual life had to seek it at the risk of their lives.
Thus the institutional Church, with the Pope as its head, became the center of Christianity. Especially after the system of the Inquisition was established in several countries of Europe, heretics were relentlessly tracked down and cruelly punished by the Church, whose law had the power of the state. The Church had become a purely legal and worldly institution.
It was as the result of this policy of Inquisition that Wycliffe of England, John Huss of Prague, Savanarola of Italy and William Tyndale of England were put to death. History bears witness to the tragic consequences of a system which could render such retribution for translating the Scriptures or opposing the Holy See.
This severe punishment deeply impressed the uneducated masses with the concept that to reject the authorized doctrine of the Church was the worst sin a man could commit, and meant as well that toleration of such heresy was just as bad. So men were led to think that one's Christian duty was to follow the dogma of the Church unquestioningly and to persecute the heretics.
This spirit of intolerance survived even after the Reformation and entered into the Protestant Churches to become the real cause of the lamentable sectarianism of the present.
The Protestant Period
In the Reformation, Martin Luther and John Calvin established new churches in several parts of Europe separate from the Roman Church. Therefore, the Protestant Christians, the Roman Pope and the Roman institution lost their position as the center of Christianity. What then was to become the center for the new churches that arose out of the reformers' work?
For Martin Luther, as we can see in his commentary on Galatians, the central element of his faith was union with Christ in Spirit and Life--that is, koinonia with God. But it was the Holy Scripture that led Luther to this faith, and he fought against the Roman Church, using this Book as his sole weapon.
All the other reformers likewise found in the Bible the whole source of truth. In rejecting the authority of the Roman Church, these men turned to the Scriptures as the authority for their faith and actions. In the fierce conflict of those early days of the Reformation, it was natural that they should seek the security of some objective standard to meet the seemingly unlimited politico-ecclesiastical power of Rome. Therefore, the position of the Bible as the God-inspired testimony of the apostles' personal faith in Christ gradually changed and became the source of Protestant "dogma" and the criterion of acceptable faith. Replacing the Roman Pope, the Bible became the center of Christianity in the Protestant churches.
Luther's rediscovery of the great Biblical doctrine of "salvation by faith alone" was one of the greatest events of human history. His restoration of the Bible to its rightful place as the basic source of Christianity was real progress. Compared with the faith of the Roman Church it was a tremendous step in returning to the original New Testament faith.
However, it was now felt necessary in Protestantism, as it had been in Catholicism, to make a clear-cut distinction between orthodox and heretical faith and to exclude heretics from the new, purified church. So there came to be little difference between Protestants and Romanists in their insistence on making a clear, outward distinction between "real Christians" and heretics.
As a result, the Protestants were forced to spend much effort in formulating their own creeds, which produced many excellent statements of scriptural truth, such as the Augsburg Confession of 1530, the Basel Confessions of 1534 and 1536, the Helvetian Confessions of 1536 and 1567, and the Scotch Confession of 1560, as well as the French (1559), Belgian (1562), and Westminster (1642) Confessions.
Though all these confessions were very worthwhile in themselves, still none of them could claim to be the absolute standard of faith. Faith is life in Jesus Christ and a life can never be confined within certain systems or creeds. Therefore creeds are not the end or object of faith in themselves, but expressions of our fellowship with Christ, and must not be mistaken for the object or center of our faith. Obviously the fullness of the living Christ cannot be held within the narrow limits of written creeds.
The Bible itself is but the description of this life, that is, a description of God in His relationship to men. Consequently, it contains many seeming contradictions arising from the complex and varied nature of the lives of individuals and their experiences with God. This makes it impossible to sum up the truth of the Bible in any fixed creeds or confessions, because they can never be more than one person's or one group's understanding of the truth.
The failure to understand this limitation of creeds has given rise to unavoidable disturbances in Protestantism, and has become the cause of the division of Christendom into many sects and denominations based on a different interpretation and understanding of certain texts or teachings in the Bible.
The first famous dispute among Protestants broke out between Luther and Zwingli over the meaning of the Lord's Supper. In the year 1529 Philip of Hesse, trying to unify the warring sides of Protestantism, brought about a conference in Marburg, hoping to get Luther and Zwingli to agree on certain principal doctrines.
At the conference they could agree on all doctrines except whether the bread and wine in the Lord's Supper were actually the flesh and blood of Jesus, or only represented them. Because they could not agree on this point they would not shake hands, and at last the conference was dissolved in failure, to the disappointment of all. All European and American Christians know the great harm this disagreement has done to the unity of Christians.
A second episode occurred between Calvin and Servetus. They could not agree on the doctrine of the Trinity, and Calvin finally caused Servetus to be burned on the hill of Champell. The three Reformation heroes in this way became examples of sectarianism and were naturally followed or imitated by their successors, throwing the church into divisions without end. From this beginning many hundreds of sects and denominations have appeared in the world, each thinking itself to be the true church and holding all others to be mistaken. This has continued until now, making it almost impossible for them to be one in Christ.
The points on which the church has been divided will be summarized in the next chapter.to top