Vol. 5, No. 8
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As we study the apostasy of the early church, we may note many characteristics or causes. Apostasy never starts full-grown. It almost always begins with a slight shift in emphasis or direction as a result of the lusts of the flesh, lust of the eyes or the pride of life (1 John 2:16). Then lust, when it is conceived brings forth sin (James 1:15). Let us notice some of these shifts, and try to do what we can to correct them as we find them in our time.
First, there was a shift in emphasis from the importance and work of every individual to the importance and nature of the work of the clergy. In Acts 8:4, we find, "They therefore that were scattered abroad went about preaching the word." They did not need to call "The Minister" to do the preaching. The radicals and false teachers among us who teach that it is wrong to have "located preachers" have done much damage to the cause of Christ with their false and divisive doctrines. That does not change the fact that there is often an improper and dangerous tendency to exalt "The Minister." In denominations it is done by calling him "Reverend." In the church it may be done by calling him "Brother" while others are "Mister." We need to show proper respect for age, dignity or achievement, but when we show respect of persons simply because of a presumed position of importance in an ecclesiastical hierarchy, seeds of apostasy are sprouting.
Second, there was a shift in emphasis from the church being viewed as a living organism, composed of members, to viewing the church as being an organization which a member might join. We tried to show the falsity of that concept by saying, "You cannot join the Lord's church. You are added to it when you are saved" (Acts 2:47). However, many still think of it as a separate thing, similar to the ark. God saved the ark, so the men in it were saved because they were in it. So we have to "come into the church" to be saved for salvation is in the church. Denominations have accused us of teaching that the church saves. Sound Gospel preachers have denied that. However, many members still think of the church as an institution into which one must enter in order to be saved. There is a great deal of difference in the concept that the church is an institution into which one must enter in order to be saved (suggesting that the saving power is inherent in the church) and the concept that the church is a body of saved people to which the Lord adds one who is saved (Acts 2:47). If you do not know that difference, then you are a part of the problem which has led to apostasy.
Third, the building in which the church met was an optional expedient, thought to enable us to function more adequately in doing God's will. The emphasis changed until the building became the center of attention and activity and was called "the church." You can scarcely go through Europe and see the old church buildings and cathedrals without being impressed with their significance, even if they are empty most of the time. If you have ever been in a congregation where the building was the most significant thing on which we spend time and money, you may see the seeds of apostasy at work again.
Fourth, the emphasis changed from the practice of individuals teaching publicly and from house to house to the practice of members merely inviting persons to the church building for the preacher to teach them. We have been in business meetings where the focus of attention was almost entirely on providing a "smooth and pleasing worship experience" for those who came. If a stranger did happen to come in for some unknown reason, it was hoped that he would come back to enjoy the friendly fellowship, the meal in the fellowship room, or some other tantalizing tidbit. The work and worship of the church became so ritualized, systematized and formalized that it became fossilized.
These four indications of apostasy are more insidious because they are harder to see by those who are humbly trying to uphold the truth. Having "located preachers" is scriptural, and good ones deserve respect. A church needs to have organization, but the organization is not the church. Buildings can be valuable tools, as can a lawn mower. If all your time and money is spent on buying, sharpening and tuning the mower instead of cutting the grass, you are in trouble. There is nothing wrong with inviting an unsaved person to a church service. We should understand, however, that a church service in Bible times was not designed to covert the lost, but to edify the saved. "Let him that thinketh he standeth take heed lest he fall" (1 Corinthians 10:12).