Some Lessons From Church History

Wayne Jackson
Church historians have observed drastic changes in the church of antiquity. Are these changes still affecting the followers of Christ today?

The church of Christ was born in troublesome times. The bold and uncompromising preaching that was characteristic of those early disciples soon plunged them into grievous persecutions.

Peter and John were imprisoned and whipped (Acts 4, 5). Shortly thereafter Stephen became the first martyr (Acts 7:60). Apparently his death triggered the “great persecution” (Acts 8:1), which subsequently came upon the church.

For the following two and one half centuries, the church of God was literally bathed in blood. Thousands of saints were tortured and murdered in the most inhumane way.

Though the atrocities of this period were dreadful indeed, the persecutions were not without secondary benefits to the cause of the Savior.

First of all, the hardships tempered those who were truly converted to Jesus. Secondly, it “weeded out” much of the hypocritical element which plagued the church. And thirdly, it prevented insincere people from identifying with the people of God. As one historian has put it,

“One effect of the trials through which the Christians of that period passed was a purified church. The persecutions kept away all who were not sincere in their profession.”

In spite of the tribulations, the church grew with marvelous rapidity. Scholars estimate that there were possibly some sixty million Christians by the end of the second century A.D.

In the early fourth century, however, the Roman ruler Constantine came to the imperial throne. He was friendly toward the Christians, and in 313 A.D. he issued his famous “Edict of Toleration,” which at once put an end to the persecution of those who professed to follow Christ.

Admittedly, this produced some very good effects as far as society in general was concerned. Crucifixion as a method of capital punishment was abolished, slavery began to fade, and the murder of unwanted infants was repressed.

If we consider the cessation of persecution a blessing, it is only fair to point out that this newly found popularity which Christianity enjoyed had its disadvantages as well. In view of the popularity of the “Christian religion” in the western world of our own time, we might be able to learn some valuable lessons from history.

In his excellent little volume, Story of the Christian Church, J. L. Hurlbut lists some of the effects that this period of history had upon the church.

Church attendance exploded

Hurlbut writes:

“Everybody sought membership in the church, and nearly everybody was received. Both good and bad, sincere seekers after God and hypocritical seekers after gain, rushed into the communion.”

Conditions are not totally unlike this, especially in some places, even today. In some areas it is “popular” to be a member of a church; it is even financially advantageous. In many cases, it has become a cultural norm with very little correlation between what is professed and the reality of life.

In recent years much emphasis has been given to booming attendance drives in competition with denominational groups, with little stress on straight-forward, soul-shaking Bible teaching.

Have we become so enamored with quantity that we are but little concerned with quality? We must remember that it is possible to be “strong in the land, but not for truth” (Jer. 9:3).

Church services became more elaborate, but less spiritual

Hurlbut further observes,

“The services of worship increased in splendor, but were less spiritual and hearty than those of former times.”

How true of today! This is the era of huge “plants,” plush trappings, and stained glass. In many cases, an extravagant theater-like “experience” seems to be the preference of the day.

Image and appearance in the community has become more important than our image with Jehovah. And those monstrous mortgages to which we have anchored ourselves have in some cases been an effective deterrent to powerful pulpit preaching.

Some of our preaching is so indistinct and “spit-and-polish” oriented, that one can transfer from denominationalism into our fellowship and never be aware of the change!

Numerous brethren who once shouted “Amen” to solid gospel preaching, when meeting in those little white-framed buildings, now blush in dismay when denominational names are mentioned or sin is vigorously exposed. What has happened?

Corrupted by power

Finally, Hurlbut notes:

“As a result of the church sitting in power, we do not see Christianity transforming the world to its own ideal, but the world dominating the church.”

When there is no sharp line of distinction between the lives of professing Christians and the world, the influence of the church is greatly curtailed. When members of the church can dance, practice social drinking, smoke, dress indecently, and neglect any phase of the Lord’s work that suits their notion, with little being said and practically nothing being done about it, is it any wonder that the church does not grow as it did nineteen centuries ago?

Yes, there are some vital lessons to be learned from history. We ought to look back to where we’ve been, and then ahead to where we seem to be going, and then ask ourselves, “Are we aiming in the right direction?”