Is Christ Jesus faithless? Or is He eternally faithful? How does one’s view of the Church reflect on the faithfulness of Christ? Proper Ecclesiology (theology of the Church) has always been vital to true Christianity.
A staple doctrine of Protestantism teaches that the Church (again using this word loosely) fell into relative darkness just after the year 300AD. Then, beginning with the Protestant Reformation in the 1500’s the Church, it states, has been, or is in the process of being, rebuilt and restored. The Pentecostal-Charismatic (P/C) movement adds that in the last days there will be a great revival (move of God, an outpouring of the Holy Spirit with signs and wonders). The expectation is that this last times event may even surpass the events recorded in the book of Acts.
Between roughly 300 and 1500AD, sterile form and ritual became the substitute for the dynamic living experience of the early Church, so the teaching goes. Every group within the P/C movement, regardless, claims a unique reconstitution of the “Early Church.” A Profound ignorance of Church history is manifested; moreover, a deep ignorance of the real intent and significance of Liturgical worship, priesthood, mysteries (sacraments), and so forth is revealed. Purportedly, Liturgical worship is “dead religion;” priests “stand in our way of God,” and on the objections could go.
It is vital to understand that Protestantism is a movement with change in its DNA. One of its fundamental original claims was to restore authentic Christian practice because the original church fell into darkness and apostasy. It has ever debated what precisely this practice is down to this day. Nevertheless, another founding idea of Protestantism is “Sola Scriptura,” the teaching that the Bible alone is the only genuine and reliable source for Christian doctrine (teaching). So, holding them to their own standards, the central doctrine, for a doctrine it is, of the P/C movement regarding the corruption of the Church, its restoration, and a “last days great restoration revival” should be most evident in the Bible. If not, according to Protestantism’s own standards, it should be rejected. Of course, the Orthodox Church has never taught Sola Scriptura because it is innovative teaching. Nevertheless, one may rightly expect that such a purportedly paramount happening as the corruption and fall of the church, and its subsequent reestablishment, culminating in a “last days revival” would be clearly revealed, if not plainly indicated, in the Scriptures. One would also expect Early Church Fathers to foresee such a catastrophic happening.
First, we must ask, did Christ Jesus ever indicate that His Church (Ecclesia)1 would be overcome by the world? No. Rather we do have an indication (moreover a promise!) that the Lord will protect and keep His Church. “I will build my Church, and the gates of hades will not prevail against it” (Matt. 16:18). We may safely deduce two things: 1) Christ is the source of the Church, 2) hades will not prevail against it. Hades is the very personification of corruption. It is safe to understand this to mean that the Church will never fail in Her essence. Obviously, Church history is full of both ignominious and glorious events. She has welcomed the good and the evil in the hopes that all may repent and be saved. Yet because evil men have been a part, at least nominally, of the Church, does not mean that she is in her essence corrupt. This would be akin to insinuating that Jesus failed as a teacher because Judas was among his twelve Apostles.
Did St. Paul ever indicate the coming (from his perspective in the 1st century) fall of the Church? No. St. Paul tells us that Christ is the head and the Church is His body (cf. Eph. 1:21-23). This imagery is potent. Physically we understand that the head and the body are inseparable; a perfect union connects them. Separation of the head from the body is physically unnatural and destructive. One does not find a living bodiless head, nor a headless body – only if they are both dead. But Christ is alive, as is His Church. Thus, to assume a failure of the body is to imply a failure of the Head, this is a real theological implication of Protestant Ecclesiology. If the Church, the body, went corrupt, then it opens up the possibility of laying blame on the head, Christ Jesus. This is madness, yet this is the madness that is insinuated in such a teaching.
St. Paul also employs the image of marriage to icon the relationship of Christ with His Church. At the end of Paul’s profound discourse on marriage in Eph. 5:22-33, he ends with these words: This mystery is profound, and I am saying that it refers to Christ and the church (v. 32). The foundation of Christian marriage is the Arch-type icon of Christ the Lord’s relationship with His Church, which is called His Bride and wife, (cf. Rev. 21:9). Also, at the culmination of all things, the faithful are promised to partake of the marriage supper of the Lamb (cf. Rev. 19:9). Scripture commonly refers to the Lord Jesus as Bridegroom (cf. Matt. 21:1). The Christian husband and wife are called to be totally faithful to each other, forever. Why? Because Christ the Bridegroom is absolutely and totally faithful to his Bride, the Church, forever. Christian marriage is called to image the ultimate icon of the Marriage of Christ and his Church, which is, as St. Paul says, a profound mystery
To illustrate my point further, I will rephrase general Protestant Ecclesiology in marriage terminology: Christ found His first wife to be unsatisfactory and divorced her; then subsequently married another woman. Basically, this is what the claim that the Church went astray and Christ left it (this is what’s clearly implied) and then found a new or restored church/wife in the 1500s. This false ecclesiology clearly goes against the manifest teaching of Scripture and the testimony of the Saints for 2,000 years now, both with regard to the essence of the Church and Christian marriage. Whether intended or unintended, such teaching implicates Christ as faithless in His first marriage. When His first wife displeased Him, He just divorced her! How terrible is this! (Could it be that the modern problem of broken marriages is directly related to this false ecclesiology? If Christ can divorce his first wife, then why can’t I!) Lord have mercy.
We are further told that we have received an unshakable kingdom (cf. Heb. 12:28), it is no leap to understand the Church as a beginning of the manifestation of this Kingdom on earth. The Church is also called “the pillar and ground of the truth” (1 Tim. 3:15). Clearly, the Church intrinsically shares in the virtue of Her Lord. More examples could be given, but these suffice to show that the Biblical vision is not that of the P/C movement. Christ is the foundation and head of the Church, which shares in His life as the body does with the head. The Church is unmovable and a sure foundation because Her Lord and Bridegroom is. In fact, to say that the Church fails is to call the Lord Jesus Himself a liar, for He clearly says that the “gates of hades shall never prevail,” that is, the Church will never fail. Teaching that the Church went into darkness is to say that hades prevailed, which is in direct contradiction to the words of Christ Jesus.
It is good to note that synonyms in the New Testament for Ecclesia are concrete words and examples, such as Body and Bride. This indicates that the Ecclesia has a concrete material existence which has been incarnate (tangibly real) throughout all of human history. The Church is not simply some nebulous and ethereal idea to which any person vaguely belongs through the means of a minimalist confession of Christ.
The doctrine that the Church went corrupt is clearly against all sound Christian teaching. It is indeed a false teaching which presents some very terrible conclusions about the Lord Himself if one follows the teaching through to its logical end.
(A person – or groups of persons – may separate himself from the Church, but this does no violence to the intrinsic unity of the Church; the Church is always One, as the Scriptures teach, cf. Eph. 4:4. We are either united with Her or not. History is full of people disuniting themselves from the Church and uniting themselves to her. Simply because there is a plethora of groups claiming to be “Church” does not indeed mean that the Church is broken, split, or multiplied. The Church is always essentially One as is Her Lord, as the Scriptures and Christian doctrine teach.)
As the final part of this series, I will analyze whether “a last days great revival” has ever been a real Christian teaching and hope.
The reader may find part one and two of this series here –
1 It is good to note that our English word church does not come etymologically from the Greek word ekklesia but from the Greek word Kyriacon, “of the Lord” or loosely “the Lord’s house.” In old English, it was Cirice from the west German Kirka, which is the same in old Saxon, from these words we have our word “church.” The word ekklesia is a compound of two Greek words: ek – out, away from; and a derivative of kaleo – to call. Thus literally it means “to call out from.” I am using the word Church in its current common usage as the translation of ekklesia, which is a synonym of the Old Testament Hebrew word Kahal.