Can we agree that at the time of the close of the Book of Acts, all the so-called “Christian churches” were true churches of the Lord? Can we agree that the only religious “ecclesia” using the name of “Christ” were assemblies of God? As we see in the first chapters of Revelation, there were growing problems, but weren’t they all still churches of God? If we make that assumption, and I do, can we also assume that most of the members of those churches were children of God? Sure there were a few ignorant and confused Judases, accidentally admitted to sound churches, but there were no baptized infants, and no open apostates. The members of the church in Jerusalem were primarily Jews – saved by the grace of God. And most of the members of the church in Ephesus were regenerate Gentiles. Some churches were filled with saved Romans, some with Greeks, and some took their members from redeemed “heathen” – according to the Roman definition. If we had the opportunity to visit several of those churches, wouldn’t we find a few external differences? For example, the sermons and lessons would have been preached in different languages. Despite that some sermons weren’t in Greek, Hebrew or English, the churches were still scriptural. The church in Jerusalem had several elders, while other smaller churches may have had only one. Perhaps during prayer, members of some churches all knelt, some stood with their heads bowed, but others raised their hands looked toward Heaven. I don’t think that those differences would render any of those churches un-Christian or unscriptural. Just because the snacks between Sunday School and church would have been different in the Greek churches and the Judean churches – they didn’t dis-fellowship each other. Doesn’t our scripture here in Acts 15 indicate that the Jerusalem church had some differences with the churches which Paul was establishing overseas? And yet, they continued to accept one another.
Isn’t it true that various ecclesia today can be scriptural assemblies while practicing outward differences? Some differences are small enough to be nearly laughable – Mid-week services on Tuesday or Thursday rather than on the “scriptural” day of Wednesday. Whether or not there is a middle aisle in the auditorium. Perhaps you have heard of churches using offering plates rather than an offering box. Does a church which has ushers to collect the offering cease to be a scriptural church? No! But from there each differing point rises just a notch until some congregations begin to refuse fellowship with others. In some churches the women wear external head-coverings, in some churches they don’t, and in some there is a mixture of opinion. Are any of those churches not true churches of Christ, assuming the rest of their doctrine is scriptural? And again, in regard to women, in some churches they are never permitted to speak, while in others they have limited opportunities, and in some churches they lead in prayer, in music and even in teaching. We all may have our opinions and even enforce those opinions in our own church. But does a differing opinion in this area remove the church candlestick from before the Lord? Another common question is the use of wine or grape juice in the Lord’s Supper. People disagree with me, but I don’t think that one or the other nullifies the authority of Christ in that assembly, if certain other restrictions are maintained. And then there is the question of how often should the Lord’s Supper be observed? I’ve been in churches where it was observed every Sunday, apparently basing their observance on what they read in the Corinthian letters. But those churches still accepted me as a Baptist missionary, even though I think weekly is too frequent.
But here is an idea which perhaps you’ve never considered – All Baptists agree that baptism is the immersion of a believer in water. Baptism is not a sacrament – it does not wash away sins or in any way add to a person’s salvation. I assume that most Baptists immerse new believers in the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. But what if a congregation, believing just like we do in regard to salvation, insists on dipping that new believer three times – once in the name of each person of the Godhead? Does the practice of a triune immersion make a church, or keep a church, from being scriptural? I ask that question because many, if not the majority of churches, in the first three centuries of Christianity practiced triune immersion.
Last week, I said that I was going to be basing many of my comments on the historical studies of Thomas Armitage, John T. Christian and Robert Robinson. Just for clarity, I’m going to have to edit that statement. I have become so disgusted with Robinson’s Arianism, that I’ve quit reading him. He was in many ways very good in his research, but I am going to use his material only after it has been filtered through the minds of other men. And then I’m going to add to my preferred list – G. H. Orchard, J. M. Cramp and W.A. Jarrel. For years, I have been looking for a copy of Cramp, but they are exorbitantly expensive. Then I found that I could buy a Kindle edition for $3.95 – plus he can be found on the internet. So far – I am greatly enjoying reading Brother Cramp. Not only is he a Canadian, but I appreciate his clarity and the logical outline of his book. I hope one of these days to make him available through our web-page.
By the middle of the second century there were growing problems in the religious world.
For example, by 150 A.D. persecution was becoming sharper, with every other Roman emperor. Throughout the second and third century it seemed that one emperor was lenient, but the next was harsh, and he was more persecutorial than his predecessor’s predecessor had been. Each persecution, not only meant the death of hundreds or thousands of God’s saints, but it also meant the departure of the weak brethren and the impostors. Furthermore, with each new persecution came the order to destroy the books of the true Christians – including the scriptures. But then when peace returned, many of the deserters tried to return to their former churches. Some churches welcomed them, while others refused, creating a wedge between those churches. People who had delivered their Bibles to be burned became known as “traditors,” and you can imagine how well-received they were by those who truly loved the Word of God and risked their lives to keep it. By the third century, some churches were receiving those who had departed, but only if they would accept baptism again. “Anabaptism” has existed since at least the third century and probably before.
Other problems began to arise as well. For example, the importance of baptism began taking a life of its own. Some churches and Christians were not only saying that baptism gave important evidence of salvation, they were saying that baptism was essential to salvation. If someone had not been immersed they were to be treated as unsaved. That evolved into the idea that immersion was a part of salvation. Of course, not all churches believed that, but the idea was growing. Remember, too, that many professing Christians were slaves, and many of church members were illiterate. Orchard says, “the teachers of religion thought it advisable or expedient to instruct such in the essential truths of the gospel, by placing those truths, as it were, before their eyes, under visible object or images.” Images and other human inventions began to creep into churches – things like the sign of the cross. Also during this time, pastors with strong personalities and egos, or strong ambitions began to assert authority over smaller congregations, making the term “bishop” more important than “elder” or “pastor.” And furthermore, unnecessary and stupid additions were made to important functions like baptism. For example, oil, an emblem of the Spirit, was often dabbed on the forehead in the shape of the cross Some began to say that a holy kiss became essential – a required part of the baptismal formula. Some gave the newly baptized honey and milk – symbols that they were babes in Christ. Baptism became more and more ritualistic, and its true meaning became more obscure. But for every church which added these human elements there were others which refused.
Early in days of the New Testament Christianity moved into northern Africa. First there was the Ethiopian eunuch, but after the close of the Book of Acts, it is said that Matthew, Mark and Jude ministered in Egypt and then along the Mediterranean coast further to the west. There were good men and strong churches from Alexandria, Egypt to Carthage in the west. But then as Robinson puts it – “The first and the most fatal of all events to the primitive religion, was the setting up of a Christian academy at Alexandria” – Egypt. It’s leadership began with a man Pantaenus, followed by Clement and then the infamous Origen. Following Athens in Greece, Alexandria was the most prominent cultural city in the Roman world. It enticed not only business men but intellectuals from every direction. Its library was the largest in the world, and the city drew every philosophy imaginable. Clement, followed even more so by Origen, fell into the vortex of Gnosticism, and over a short period of time, their school became filled with Judaism, Paganism, human philosophy under the cloak of Christianity. So the first known Bible seminary became prototypical of thousands more – a cesspool of heresy. One thing for which the Alexandrian school became so notable was their Christian version of Gnosticism. The Gnostics believed that wisdom was a product of the mind, nothing else – not faith, not revelation. If something didn’t make logical sense to whoever was in charge at the time – then it wasn’t true. As a result, the Alexandrian school became a greenhouse for the allegorization of the scriptures. Just about every clear Biblical statement was explained away by Origen and his disciples. Miracles, the virgin birth, the deity of Christ, the blood atonement – these and other important things meant something other than what it really meant when Christ, Paul and Peter first said it or wrote it. And an extension of that heresy was the corruption of the written Word. They quite literally re-wrote the Bible to suit their Gnosticism.
In about the year 150, there arose a man named Montanus.
He was born in Phrygia in today’s central Turkey. Seeing the deteriorating condition of Bible Christianity, he resolved to keep himself, his doctrine and his church as true to the New Testament as he could. At first he had few local sympathizers, and no one to guide him or to counsel him. But he did have the scriptures, and he determined pattern his service after the Book of Acts. Whether or not he was truly successful, I’ll leave with the Lord.
Remember that this man ministered nearly 2,000 years ago. And remember, too, that there have been repeated attempts by God’s enemies to destroy any and all trace of disagreements to their various regimes. In other words, we have not been left with absolute proof of anything about this man. And what we do have may have been contaminated by the hatred of both the Romans and the Alexandrians.
It is said that Montanus believed in on-going revelation – that the Holy Spirit continued to inspire His people. Depending on definitions, Baptists still believe that sort of thing, but in a limited sort of way. I am convinced that the Holy Spirit has led me into this study on the names and titles of God’s people. But the scriptures that I use are confined to the sixty-six books of the Bible, not new revelation. One of the problems of second century was the growing episcopacy – the religious hierarchy. The bishops of larger churches were dictating policy and doctrine to smaller churches. They were setting up and removing church elders. They were insisting on Alexandrian rites and Biblical interpretations in other men’s churches. Perhaps Montanus’ reaction was extreme, but in addition to demanding the complete autonomy of his church, he emphasized the Holy Spirit leadership of each church leader. It appears that he believed in new revelations – perhaps like some “new lighters.” William Williams wrote – “They insisted much upon the power of the Spirit, as the great conservator and guardian of the life of the Christian church. Now, as far back as the days of Montanism, this was offensive to the (established and so-called) Christian churches, which became, under the power of wealth and fashion, secularized and corrupted.” Armitage wrote – “The one prime-idea held by the Montanists in common with Baptists, and in the distinction from the churches of the third century, was that membership in the churches should be confined to purely regenerate persons; and that a spiritual life and discipline should be maintained without any affiliation with the authority of the state.” It is said that Montanists not only permitted women to speak, but they encourage them to speak in their churches. While I disagree with the idea of women preachers, I am not convinced that if other doctrines are right, that this unchurches a Baptist congregation. If what Armitage said about them is true, does their acceptance of women preachers mean that they were not true churches of Christ?
John Henry Newman, 19th century Roman Catholic historian, wrote “the very foundation of Montanism is development, not in doctrine, but in discipline and conduct.” One the cardinal Montanist doctrines was the imminent return of Christ – just as we believe. They believed in the soon to be established liberal reign of Christ on earth – there were clearly pre-millinnialists. And as a result they preached I John 3 – “Beloved, now are we the sons of God, and it doth not yet appear what we shall be: but we know that, when he shall appear, we shall be like him; for we shall see him as he is. And every man that hath this hope in him purifieth himself, even as he is pure.” Armitage says, “Montanus labored hard to rekindle the love of many who had waxed cold, and to restore the spirituality of the churches. But he was so extremely rigid in the matter of fasting and other acts of self-denial, that he caught the ascetic side of religion in its demands for a pure life.” If their definition of worldliness was much stronger than ours, would that keep us from calling his ministry Baptistic? Armitage again, “He taught that men should not flee from persecution, and insisted on the rebaptism of the ‘lapsed;’ not because they had been improperly baptized in the first place, but because they denied Christ, and on re-professing Him, ought to be baptized afresh.” They were anabaptists. And those Montanists rejected the growing idea that baptism was a sacrament – it did not save.
Montanism spread from Phrygia in the second century throughout the Mediterranean in the third. Eventually there were Montanist churches in Asia, Africa, Greece and Italy. The 325 A.D. Council of Nicea debated them, but took no action. One document said that they may have been fanatics, but they were not heretics. Is it necessarily a bad thing to be a fanatic for Christ? But then the Council of Laodicea condemned them But would a bad report from Laodicea be a bad thing in itself? Remember Revelation 3:14-6 – “And unto the angel of the church of the Laodiceans write; These things saith the Amen, the faithful and true witness, the beginning of the creation of God; I know thy works, that thou art neither cold nor hot: I would thou wert cold or hot. So then because thou art lukewarm, and neither cold nor hot, I will spue thee out of my mouth. Because thou sayest, I am rich, and increased with goods, and have need of nothing; and knowest not that thou art wretched, and miserable, and poor, and blind, and naked.”
In A.D. 381 the Council of Constantinople ordered that the Montanists be treated them like pagans and required converts from Montaism churches to be re-immersed. Even early Catholicism practiced anabaptism in the very early days. Jarrel quotes a man named Möller, who stated – “Montainism was not a new form of Christianity; nor were the Montantists a new sect. On the contrary, Montanism was simply a relation of the old, the primitive church, against he obvious tendency of the day, to strike a bargain with the world and arrange herself comfortably in it.” Jarrel summarizes his account of these people saying, “That the Montantist churches were Baptist churches is the only legitimate conclusion from their comparison with the facts.”
From consulting with more than half a dozen references, the people called “Montanists” in the second, third and into the fourth centuries were for the most part true children of God. The world ridiculed them by applying to them the name of one of their early leaders. But I believe that God called those people “His saints.”