Saturday, November 12, 2011


3 The Shift from a Suffering Church to an Institution of Ease

The early church grew and prospered incredibly without having church buildings or being protected by the state. In fact, from apostolic times to the ascension of Constantine the church went through cycles of intense persecution spearheaded by the ruling powers. These times of persecution are well documented in such books as Persecution in the Early Church by H. B. Workman and Martyrdom and Persecution in the Early Church by W. H. C. Friend.5

However, the advent of the emperor Constantine in 312 A.D. brought great changes, most of them for the worse. Money from state funds was used to erect Christian church buildings and support Christian clergy. Ultimately, Christianity was declared to be the state religion. 

From Constantine onwards the visible church became enmeshed in political intrigue, and the state mingled in the determination of church affairs. As Louis Berkhof notes regarding the Council of Nicaea in 325 A.D. [which Constantine convened and presided over]: "A settlement forced upon the Church by the strong hand of the emperor could not satisfy and was also of uncertain duration. It made the determination of the Christian faith dependent on imperial caprice and even on court intrigues." This is exactly what happened repeatedly in subsequent history.

Constantine set in motion the ideal of a territorial state religion with Christianity at the helm. This ideal was the death knell of all that the Gospel stood for. It signaled the end of believers gathering separately from the pagan culture as a counter-culture where the way of Christ was displayed in simplicity. 

Now the church was conceived of as all the people in a nation who were born as citizens of the state and constituted as part of the visible church by infant baptism. Church and politics were fused together, creating immense confusion. Ron VanOverloop notes this phenomenon operation from the post-apostolic church to the Reformation: "As was the case in the early church when emperors called the great ecumenical councils together, so was the progress of the Reformation to a great extent determined by the political maneuvering taking place in each country."

In the early church the disciples banded together in homes and other places as communities "called out" from the world; but Constantinianism erased this distinction and defined "church" as all citizens in a given territory. This had the practical effect of watering down true discipleship and creating a worthless nominal Christianity. 

Werner Elert contrasts the early days with the rise of Constantinianism: "[In the early church] the strength of their ties with one another is matched by the strength of the boundary they draw to the outside. In business dealings with one another they do not choose an unbeliever to arbitrate; they transact their business "before the saints" and between "brother and brother" (1 Cor. 6:1.5). One is to throw in one's lot with those who fear the Lord, consider their common good, and daily visit the saints face to face ...After Constantine things changed radically with the influx of the masses. This did not prosper the Christian brotherhood. If we can believe only half of what Salvian says, there was not much left of it a hundred years later in many parts of western Christendom."

The shift from a suffering church to an institution sanctioned and promoted by the state forces us to face a crucial question: Was the Constantinian change the rise or fall of the church? How you answer that question will greatly define your whole view of the church and its mission. 

In light of New Testament revelation about the church Christ purposed to build, I submit that Constantinianism was a wretched stone thrown into the sea of church history, the ripples of which still lap on our shores today.

We must make a choice. Are we going to cast our lot in with the New Testament vision for the body of Christ [simplicity, suffering, servanthood], or in with the Constantinian model [powerful institution, clergy dominance, rule by political maneuvering]? Are we going to devote the energies of our short life-span to perpetuating the post-apostolic shifts that moved away from the simplicity of Christ, or to restoring the spirit of the New Testament vision?

4 The Shift from a Spirit-Dependent Church to a Letter-Dependent Institution

Twice in his epistles Paul refers to the fact that the church serves Christ "in [the] newness of the Spirit and not in [the] oldness of the letter" (Rom. 7:6; 2 Cor. 3:6). The church was a community of the Spirit from the Day of Pentecost. In light of this reality the early church did not trust in fixed forms to maintain and guard her existence. There was an openness of the body to be led by the Spirit in light of Christ's Gospel-word.

This can be seen, for example, in the glimpse of an early church service revealed in 1 Cor. 14. Edification was the goal which was to be reached by the Spirit-led participation of the body. The balance Paul desired can perhaps be summed up like this: no form of order in the service must be allowed to stifle the free expression of edifying gifts in the body; no expression of spontaneity in the body must be allowed to blossom into unprofitable disorder. William Barclay isolates these important points from 1 Cor. 14:  "[Paul] is determined that anyone who possesses a gift should receive every chance to exercise that gift, but he is equally determined that the services of the Church should not thereby become a kind of competitive disorder. ...There must be liberty but there must be no disorder. ...There was obviously a freedom and an informality about [this service] which is completely strange to our ideas. ...Clearly the church had no professional ministry. ...It was open to anyone who had a gift to use that gift. ...There was obviously a flexibility about the order of service in the early church which is now totally lacking. There was clearly no settled order at all. Everything was informal enough to allow any man who felt that he had a message give it. ...The really notable thing about an early Church service must have been that almost everyone came feeling that he had both the privilege and the obligation of contribution something to it."

Unfortunately, as time went on this Spirit-dependence gave way to more and more fixed forms of worship, which phased out body participation and committed ministry only to an ever-growing web of ecclesiastical hierarchy. By 250 A.D. church order was set in concrete with one bishop ruling over various territories. The momentum of this church bureaucracy was accelerated when Constantine and his successors sanctioned the church and contributed moneys and resources to this increasingly powerful institution. What began as a Spirit-led organism ended up as a letter-dependent institution. The leaders no longer trusted in the Spirit to hold the body together; instead they leaned on intricate human contrivances and rules to feign outward unity.

One of the saddest features of this shift to letter-dependence, combined with the church's new collusion with the state, was the employment of coercion both to gain and maintain adherents. Simply trusting in the Spirit would have resulted in a spiritual reality too vulnerable to be controlled by human contrivances; the use of raw power backed by the weapons of the state seemed to promise greater stability.

 Eric Hoffer makes this tragic observation which church history, unfortunately, verifies:  "There is hardly an example of a mass movement achieving vast proportions and a durable organization solely by persuasion ...It was the temporal sword that made Christianity a world religion. Conquest and conversion went hand in hand. ...Where Christianity failed to gain or retain the backing of state power, it achieved neither a wide nor permanent hold. ...It also seems that, where a mass movement can either persuade or coerce, it usually chooses the letter. Persuasion is clumsy and its results uncertain."

Again we must ask ourselves, "Are we going to be a part of perpetuating this shift to trusting in outward carnal hedges to hold the church together, or are we going to purpose to contribute to a return of child-like trust in the Spirit of Christ to build and sustain His body?'

Concluding Remarks...

We have examined four clear shifts in early church history. These shifts are acknowledged by church historians of all theological persuasions. James D. G. Dunn, one of the foremost New Testament scholars of our time, summarizes the essence of these four shifts like this: "Increasing institutionalism is the clearest mark of early Catholicism - when church becomes increasingly identified with institution, when authority becomes increasingly coterminous with office, when a basic distinction between clergy and laity becomes increasingly self-evident, when grace becomes increasingly narrowed to well-defined ritual acts." 

We saw above that such features were absent from first generation Christianity, though in the second generation the picture was beginning to change. Such features were absent from first generation Christianity, that is, they are not found in the New Testament. 

Does this concern you? Is your heart burdened by the chasm between the original work of the Spirit and the hardened institution that quickly emerged in the post-apostolic days? Does it bother you that most of what we associate with 'church' has little to do with the New Testament, and more to do with patterns that reflect a drift away from it?

Further, and this is the key question, were the shifts we have studied a faithful extension of New Testament ideals, or a tacit denial of all that they stand for? If the answer is the latter, then it is incumbent upon believers to work for the recovery of Christ's ways and to stop contributing to the perpetuation of non-edifying ecclesiastical patterns.

I commend my thoughts on the four shifts and the upcoming collaborating materials to your discerning conscience. May the Lord guide you into appropriate responses as 'the worthy walk' is set before us in the Gospel.

Jon Zens


Christiane said...


I wonder if you have seen or care to comment on the new PBS program of four shows on the early Church by Robert F. Barron ?

Here is an extended 'preview':

Do you disagree with Barron's comments on the mission of the Apostles ?

Do you see the God that Jesus proclaimed in the same way that Barron describes Him ?

Do you see the same meaning in the word 'dunamus' that Barron sees in the Gospel ?

I would very much like to read your comments on the 'preview', particularly in response to those questions I have asked, but only if you have the time and the inclination to watch the preview and to respond. Thanks for your time and any help you can provide.


Aussie John said...


As I said previously, I had read this Four Shifts article. I think I quoted from it in my blog,and, as I remember, rightly or wrongly, without knowing who wrote it.

The complete article speaks to the burden of my own heart, of the last twenty years or so, as I came to recognize that the church, across the board, was a disfunctional, emasculated version of what Christ began.

It had become a dead, human institution which most members had been blindly trusting as that of which Jesus spoke.

Even far worse was that we had been deceived into allowing mere men, and sometimes women, to stand in the place of Headship, which belongs to Christ alone.

There are those who claim that they have no Head but Christ, who say they believe in the thoroughly Biblical concept of the priesthood of all believers, under that one Head, but give lip-service, at best.

I was one of them until, in my own studies, as a pastor,I decided to read widely, outside of the material that was denominationaly recommended, and compare with Scripture.

How easy it is to read, and to interpret through lens which are tinted with denominational dogma and traditions.

How hard it is to let go what we have assumed was truth, for a long time. I know!

Thank you Paul for letting others read, and, I hope, be challenged to examine the evidence and "see if these things be so".

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Rex Ray said...

When I watched your link reference of the Catholic Church, I saw material possessions and masses of people.

It reminded me of what Paul faced in the situation he was in when he was told, “You see how many thousands of Jews have also believed, and they all follow the Law of Moses…” (Acts 21:20)

Seeing people ‘walk’ on their knees (that’s more painful than crawling on your knees) also reminded me of how Catholics while doing penance, wore inches off the steps of concrete in the high stairways of the church cathedrals in German.

I was there at the age of 16 after World War II. The people were poor, as the church owned the land they labored on.

Christiane, sorry, but I wasn’t moved by the ‘greatness’ of the Church.

Why can’t Jon Zens see a pecking order in the early church when “John, the old Elder of the church” (2 John 1:1 Living Bible) said,

“I sent a brief letter to the church about this, but proud Diotrephes, who loves to push himself forward as the leader of the Christians there, does not admit my authority over him and refuses to listen to me…He not only refuses to welcome the missionary travelers himself, but tells other not to and when they do he tries to put them out of the church.” (3 John 1:9-10)

Diotrephes might have believed Paul in his saying:

“If anyone even an angel from heaven preaches any other way to be saved than the one we told you, let him forever be cursed.” (Galatians 1:8)

Did Elder John preach salvation by works?

Beware of…losing the prize that you and I have been working so hard to get…if you wander beyond the teaching of Christ, you will leave God behind; while you are loyal to Christ’s teachings, you will have God too.” (2 John 1:8-9 Living)

On the other hand, Diotrephes might have really agreed with Elder John saying:
“If anyone comes to teach you, and he doesn’t believe what Christ taught, don’t even invite him into your home.” (2 John 1:10)

What was the purpose of these men that Elder John call “missionary travelers”? Were they preaching the Gospel to the lost, or were they trying to teach Gentiles to follow the Law of Moses?

Were these the guys that Paul referred to: “I only wish these teachers who want you to cut yourselves by being circumcised would cut themselves off from you and leave you alone.” (Galatians 5:12 Living)

It looks like by Elder John in writing letters to the Jerusalem Church, he was giving a report on who’s good and who’s bad which would agree with

Birth of Christianity p. 466 “James was the authoritative leader of the Jerusalem mother-church, which was operating two major missions, one to the Jews and one to the pagans. In a combined community, such as that at Antioch, Christian Judaism had to prevail over Christian paganism. Peter and Barnabas presumed that kosher regulations were no longer important. Before James’s intervention, they ate with the pagans like pagans.”

One main problem I have with Zens; he acts like Anabaptists never existed.

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Aussie John said...


You wrote, "One main problem I have with Zens; he acts like Anabaptists never existed."

Jon is very conversant with the Anabaptists, as his writings reveal.

I suggest that if you read some of his work you would revise your opinion. If you check the internet you will find an audio message by Jon on the subject of the Anabaptists.

For the want of a better appellation, I would call Jon "Anabaptist" or maybe "New Anabaptist", although I think he would rather be known simply as a follower of Christ.

Indeed, this article with which Paul has blessed us is replete with the desire of Anabaptists to return to Scriptural church practice.

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Anonymous said...

Aussie John,
“This article with which Paul has blessed us” does not have the word ‘Anabaptists’ in it. With over 3,600 words to tell us the history of what happened to the early church, I would think Zens had plenty of time to mention Anabaptist which I believe were the roots of Baptists that believed the teachings of Jesus as interpreted by the Apostles.

So I stand by my conclusion: Zens“ acts like Anabaptists never existed.

How can Zens be a “New Anabaptists” since he believes there was NO hierarchy in the early church? Anabaptists were the low end of the pecking order.

Why do you suppose the Living Bible quotes Elder John saying, “…Diotrephes…does not admit my authority over him and refuses to listen to me.” (3 John 1:10) ?

Is this not a pecking order?
Is this not hierarchy in action?

Elder John was a ‘big wig’ in the Jerusalem Church that had thousands of members which has been labeled by some writers as the “mother church”.

John Crossan wrote Birth of Christianity p. 466 “James was the authoritative leader of the Jerusalem mother-church, which was operating two major missions, one to the Jews and one to the pagans. In a combined community, such as that at Antioch, Christian Judaism had to prevail over Christian paganism. Peter and Barnabas presumed that kosher regulations were no longer important. Before James’s intervention, they ate with the pagans like pagans.”

I believe James “intervened” by sending out HIS people to teach/check on Christian Gentiles to be sure they believed the proper doctrine or as he told Paul—“our thinking” (Acts 21:24 Living) “Then everyone will know that you…obey the Jewish laws and are in line with our thinking in these matters.”

I think HIS people can be better defined as “friends of James” (Galatians 2:12 NLT) or “certain from James”. (KJ)

I think HIS people were gung-ho on Jewish laws and probably the “sect of Pharisees” in Acts 15:5.

I think HIS people never stopped bugging Paul and Gentile churches with there ‘peck, peck, pecking’ as Paul wrote:

“...false brethren...who came to spy as to whether we obeyed the Jewish laws are not.” “We who are born of the Holy Spirit are persecuted by those who want us to keep the Jewish laws.” “...if I preached...Jewish laws are necessary for the plan of salvation, I’d be persecuted no more.” I just wish those troublemakers who want to mutilate you by circumcision would mutilate themselves.” “Those teachers...who are trying to convince you to be circumcised are doing it to avoid the persecution they would get if they admitted the cross of Christ alone can save...” (Galatians 2:4 4:29 5:11,12 6:12,13)

To be continued

Anonymous said...

Here are some facts:
The Christians that were known as “sect of the Pharisees” (Acts 15:5) after the Jerusalem Council, PROBABLY did not roll over and die in their thinking that Circumcision/Law of Moses was NECESSARY to be a Christian. Their ‘fingerprints’ can be seen throughout the New Testament:

“You see, brother, how many thousands of Jews there are who have believed, and they are all zealous for the law. (Acts 21:20)

How many of these thousands were in the crowd that yelled, “Wipe this person off the earth—it’s a disgrace for him to live!” (Acts 22:22)

Paul told of elevated positions of Christians:

“James, Peter, and John, who were known as pillars of the church…” (Galatians 2:9)

Do you suppose even Paul ranked these three by naming the most
important first?

In fact, when an angel freed Peter from prison, who did Peter say to tell first?
“…Report these things to James…” (Acts 12:17)

How did James get to be a “pillar”? He missed three years of college from Jesus and was even a scoffer. Why didn’t the church choose one of the Apostles to be their pastor?

Crossan wrote:

“Hegesippus describes James as under a lifelong Nazirite vow…treated like a priest and allowed to enter the Holy of Holies as the high priest would on the Day of Atonement.”

James was a lay preacher since history records James prayed daily in the Holy Place for the sins of the people while on his knees which were harden like the knees of a camel.

People looked upon James as bringing God’s blessings on them since his ‘inherited’ job as a Nazirite was the same as Aaron (Numbers 6:27 NLT): “Whenever Aaron and his sons bless the people of Israel in my name, I myself will bless them.”

“Foxe’s Book of Martyrs” (The one written in the 1500’s) quoted Pharisees saying to James, page 10, “…all the people and we ourselves are ready to obey thee.”

Aussie John, if you remain silent on this subject, I’ll assume you have the attitude of “See no evil, hear no evil, and speak no evil.”

I’ll say again, I admire your stand as pastor refusing to be the ‘boss’.

Rex Ray

Aussie John said...


I really love to debate with people who will look at ALL the evidence available, both Scriptural and Historical.

It would be quite rude of me to use Paul's page to enter into debate with you in another brother's forum.

However! If you concede to do, what both Paul and I have done for quite a few years, and study the evidence, you may find that, like me, you will be dragged, kicking and screaming, into a realization that out Baptist forbears, and their writings, were not quite as correct as we had been assuming.

I know from my own experience of sixty years in the church, how "what I have always believed" is the most comfortable road to take.

I am convinced of ONE thing: In the end, denominational traditions are absolutely NOTHING compared with my relationship with Christ.

If you and I are both what we claim, then we have that greatest thing in common, as brothers in Christ, and if we are that, we DON"T have to be always right about anything else.

By the way: Listen to Jon's audio talk about the Anabaptists. You may get a surprise!

Aussie John said...


Even better still, and more appropriate, have a conversation with Jon. You'll find him a very pleasant fellow.


or his web site:

Anonymous said...

Aussie John,
Thanks for Jon’s email and web site.

My internet stays down 90% of the time. I found Jon on the internet but the internet would crash when I tried to see what he said.

I like discussions as long as the sides ‘listen’ to each other and reply to points being made

You said, “It would be quite rude of me to use Paul's page to enter into debate with you in another brother's forum.”

But I thought Paul wanted discussion on Jon’s article. How would that be rude of us?

I don’t know what you mean by “the most comfortable road to take.”

Does that mean read the Bible with rose colored glasses?

I can prove there was hierarchy in the early church that Paul fought and lost because if he had won, he wouldn’t have gone to prison and got his head removed. And the name in 313 would have been Baptist. :)


Aussie John said...


I am reminded when I read articles such as Jon's of a statement I read recently, “Men seem to learn but little from history. Moved with pride, swept with unreasoning fears, in every generation there are those who spend their time and money to erect the same idols and to perpetuate the same errors of their sectarian forefathers. There has never been a human idol erected that did not betray God’s trust and eventually bring disaster to its erectors and their idolatrous followers.”

Rex Ray said...

Aussie John,
It seems you’d rather talk to Paul who is not replying now because he hasn’t the time, than to talk to someone who does.

I looked at Jon’s website and all I saw was his books for sale.

I’m reminded of my father telling me once: “You’re always right, but when you’re wrong, you’re dead wrong.”

That’s the way I feel about what Paul has posted of Jon’s writings on his blog that say there was no hierarchy or picking order in the early church.

Usually when there is a church split, there’s one group trying to tell the other group what to do.

Such is the situation I see in (1John 2:19 Holman):

“They went out from us, but they did not belong to us; for if they had belonged to us, they would have remained with us. However, they went out so that it might be made clear that none of them belongs to us.”

Why do I get the feeling that Elder John had the attitude that the group that left belong to the group that stayed?

Was he talking about the group that left in (1 John 2:4 Living Bible)?

“Someone may say, “I am a Christian; I am on my way to heaven; I belong to Christ.” But if he doesn’t do what Christ tells him to, he is a liar.”

The main question is who decides ‘what Christ tells’?

Did the group leave because they thought Elder John was preaching salvation by works since he said in (2 John 1:8-9 Living Bible)?

“Beware of being like them, and losing the prize [salvation?] that you and I have been working [salvation by works?] so hard to get. See to it that you win your full reward from the Lord. For if you wander beyond the teaching of Christ,[the way I believe?] you will leave God behind [lost?] “

Aussie John said...


It seems that you, and I,understand a different ethic, when it comes to letter/email addressees. I will therefore seek to explain:

It is Paul's blog, therefore I address anything I write, to that blog,to the owner of the blog.

If I have something to say to someone else who is writing on Paul's blog, I will refer to that person AFTER I have referred to Paul.

My last comment was addressed to Paul because it was intended for Paul. Why would I address it otherwise? I didn't address you.

I have read Paul for quite some time now and see him as having carefully studied the issues of which he writes, and coming to the same conclusions as Jon has, and I have.

I respect you as a brother in Christ, and your right to your opinion, but have no intention of rising to the bait you keep offering (as tasty as it is), and debating you on Paul's blog.

If this was an issue of your salvation I would continue to engage with you, but as it isn't I will write no more until Paul is back on the scene.

My prayer for you is as the Apostle finished his beautiful letter to the church at Philippi, "The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ be with your spirit".