Back to Historic Christianity? (Pt. 2)
The material on this page was written in the 1970s to respond to the criticisms of Walter Martin, founder of the Christian Research Institute (CRI) and the original “Bible Answer Man.” CRI has since withdrawn those criticisms and reversed its earlier conclusions (see “A Brief History of the Relationship between the Local Churches and the Christian Research Institute”). The text of this article is published here for the historical record, for the important points of truth it addresses, and because CRI’s criticisms, although withdrawn, are still repeated by others.
From: Answers to the Bible Answer Man – Appendix
In a recent speech, the Bible Answer Man exhorted the Christians in the local churches to turn “back again to historic Christianity.” However, we must follow the word of the Lord, not the opinions of men. If anyone is clear about the church, either the church revealed in the Scriptures or the historic church, it is Jesus Christ. He is the One who said, “I will build my church” (Matt. 16:18); the One who gave Himself up for the church, purchasing it with His own blood (Eph. 5:25; Acts 20:28); the One who spoke so knowingly to the seven churches in Asia (Rev. 2 and 3). Therefore, in this article we shall consider a crucial question: What does Jesus Christ think of the historic church? The answer to this question is found in the Lord’s words in Matthew 13 and in Revelation 2 and 3. In this article we shall discuss, in an elementary way, the Lord’s word in Matthew 13, a portion of Scripture that charts the development of Christendom from the Lord’s first coming until His second coming at the end of this age.
A number of Christian teachers seem to feel they have been commissioned by God to defend the historic church from all attack, real or imaginary, and oppose those who have found in the proper church life an alternative to organized Christianity. However, the arguments, opinions, and apologetics of the defenders of the historic church need to be weighed in the light of the Lord’s words regarding it. Any who defend what the Lord judges will find themselves in disagreement not with men, but with God.
A Definition of the Historic Church
By the “historic church” we do not mean the church revealed and practiced in the New Testament. Rather, the phrase “historic church” denotes the system of organized and institutionalized Christianity as it has developed from the end of the apostolic era until the present. This system includes Roman Catholicism, Eastern Orthodoxy, and the Protestant sects and denominations. Our definition of the historic church also encompasses the councils, creeds, pronouncements, and practices of the aforementioned groups.
Prophecies of the Historical Development of Christendom
In Matthew 13 there are seven parables regarding the kingdom of the heavens. The first of these parables, the parable of the sower, reveals that the Lord Jesus came to sow the seed of the kingdom. In the second, third, and fourth parables, the parables of the tares, the mustard seed, and the woman with the leaven, the Lord speaks directly, albeit prophetically, of the historical development of institutionalized Christianity as the outward appearance of the kingdom of the heavens. In so doing He uncovers the actual situation of Christendom. If we compare these parables with the facts of church history, we shall see an amazing correspondence.
The Tares, the False Believers
In the parable of the tares we see Satan’s counterfeit of the genuine seed, which are the sons of the kingdom. Because the wheat is the Sons of the kingdom, the tares, the children of the evil one, must be the many false believers who are part of the various institutions of the historic church. We wish to make it clear that in every branch of historic Christianity there are true believers, those who have the saving faith in the Person and work of the Lord Jesus Christ, who have been washed in the Lord’s redeeming blood, and who have been regenerated by the Holy Spirit. However, it is nonetheless a fact that tares, false believers, have been sown among the wheat and that both will grow together in the world until the end of this age. The fact that the wheat and the tares grow together in the world indicates that those religious organizations in which tares are found in abundance are actually part of the world. Can it be seriously doubted that tares grow in abundance in Roman Catholicism, in Eastern Orthodoxy, and in so many Protestant denominations? One outstanding feature of the historic church is that it contains a mixture of wheat and tares. Some groups even boast of such a mixture, condemning those who have no tares among them.
It was especially during the time of Constantine the Great, who terminated the persecution of Christians and made Christianity the state religion, that tares were sown by the enemy. Thousands of nominal believers were baptized into Christianity, even being rewarded financially by the Roman Empire for doing so. Thus, in the eyes of the Lord Jesus, the historic church is not a farm growing Christ as wheat and producing real believers as the sons of the kingdom; it is a mixture of wheat and tares, with the tares in many cases vastly outnumbering the wheat.
The Big Tree—Greatness in the World
The second parable regarding the historic church is the parable of the mustard seed. According to this parable, the Lord planted a mustard seed in His field. But, instead of remaining a mustard herb, it grew abnormally and developed into a huge tree. In this monstrous tree the birds of heaven find their roost. The growth of this tree is definitely not a positive development. Rather, it points to the grotesquely abnormal development of organized Christianity into a worldly institution. The birds that lodge in its branches, that is, in the various organizations of this complex religious system, refer to evil persons, evil things, and evil matters. In the parable of the sower, it was the birds, representing the evil one, who devoured the seed. Therefore, in the third parable the birds must also refer to things related to Satan, the evil one. Arno C. Gaebelein has said:
The mustard seed springing up in the field (do not forget that the field is the world), rooting deeper and deeper in the earth and expanding in this unnatural way affording room for birds…shows us a system which is rooted in the earth and which aims at greatness in the world, expansion over the earth. The Lord…never called the church to assume such proportions and become an abnormal growth in the earth.
At what point in its historic development did the church become a great tree? No doubt this took place at the time of Constantine the Great when Christianity entered into a marriage relationship with the world. From that time onward, it began to be a worldly power, having allied itself with the political system of the world. The great tree in this parable is the religious system of Christendom; the branches are its various organizations; and the birds are the evil persons, evil things, and evil matters that make their home there. The Lord’s intention was that His church would be a lowly mustard herb providing food for man’s nourishment and satisfaction. But due to the evil strategy of Satan, the church in its historical development has become a great tree, a system rooted in the world and exerting an ungodly influence over it. Regarding this, H. A. Ironside remarks:
So that which began as a field of wheat developed, in the course of centuries, into the mustard tree. The professing church of God became a power to be reckoned with among the nations, but its branches sheltered all kinds of false professors and evil teachers. The birds of the air represent the hosts of evil, and these lodge in the branches of the mustard tree. It is a most graphic picture of what Christendom became throughout the course of centuries when the false church seemed to dominate the world.
Those who defend the historic church are the defenders of the monstrous tree. They stand squarely within the organized system of Christendom, endeavor to perpetuate it, and fight to defend it from any who would criticize it in the light of biblical revelation concerning the true nature and calling of the church. But in the eyes of the Lord Jesus Christ, historic Christendom is the big tree of Matthew 13. It is an evil system that is rooted in the world and that breeds and nourishes the desire for greatness among its members. Hence, it is not surprising that the historic church not uncommonly uses the adjective “great” to describe itself and its enterprises. The ultimate development of the great tree will be Babylon the Great unveiled in Revelation 17. Sorry to say, the historic church is no longer a lowly, life-transmitting mustard herb; rather, it is an institution seeking worldly greatness.
The Leaven Producing a Mixture
In the fourth parable, the parable of the leaven, we see an even further and more insidious development of the historic church. According to H. A. Ironside, in this parable we see “the false church inserting the leaven of corrupt teaching into the food of God’s people.” The crucial matter in this parable, therefore, is the leaven. According to the Bible, leaven signifies evil and corruption. The meal offering described in Leviticus 2 was not to contain leaven. To the Lord Jesus leaven also denoted evil, for He charged us to beware of the leaven of the Pharisees and Sadducees and the leaven of Herod (Matt. 16:6; Mark 8:15). Ironside has pointed out that the leaven of the Pharisees “is hypocrisy and self-righteousness; the leaven of the Sadducees…is false doctrine and materialism; and the leaven of Herod…is worldliness and political corruption.” The fine flour in this parable refers to the Lord Jesus, especially to His humanity; it also refers to the truth of God concerning Christ. The leaven denotes those corrupt, heathen, and pagan practices that have been combined by the historic church with the things of Christ to produce a mixture. For example, the incarnation of Christ and the birth of Christ are pure meal, but Christmas, which is of pagan origin and which involves many heathen practices, is leaven. Likewise, the resurrection of Christ is meal, but Easter, named after the pagan goddess, is leaven. In the historic church the things of Christ are mixed with paganism. This mixture is produced for the purpose of making Christianity more palatable and acceptable to the masses. Although some branches of the historic church contain less of this mixture than others, none is completely purged of the leaven. As the Lord Jesus said, “The whole was leavened,” that is, the whole of Christendom has been leavened. It is interesting that in the traditional interpretation of this parable propounded by the historic church the leaven is regarded as positive. What a complete inversion of the Lord’s meaning and intention!
You may be wondering who the woman is who added leaven to the fine flour. When we compare the fourth parable in Matthew 13 with the fourth epistle to the seven churches in Revelation 2, the epistle to the church in Thyatira, we see that this woman is Jezebel. As many Bible scholars have pointed out, the woman Jezebel signifies the apostate church filled with spiritual fornication and idolatry. Thus, the woman in Matthew 13 signifies the most apostate aspect of the historic church, which took the lead to add the leaven of paganism and heathenism to the fine flour. Those who defend the historic church defend a system of doctrine and practice that surreptitiously adds leaven to the pure truth of Christ.
The Present Situation of Christendom
At this point, I would ask the reader to consider the present situation of the historic church in the light of these parables, giving special attention to three outstanding characteristics of historic Christendom: the tares, the numerous false believers; the huge tree, the complex religious organization that seeks worldly greatness and adopts many worldly practices; and the leaven, the mixture caused by adding evil things and pagan practices to the pure word concerning Christ. How the Lord hates the tares, the big tree, and the leaven! Surely He condemns the deeds of the woman, Jezebel, who mixes pagan things with the truth concerning Himself. I ask you this question: Whose assessment of the historic church will you accept – that of its defenders, or that of the Lord Jesus? Once we know what Jesus Christ thinks of Christendom, the historic church, how can we have a part in perpetuating it, let alone furthering it or building it up? If the second, third, and fourth parables in Matthew 13 do not describe the actual situation of the historic church, then what do they describe? Let us not dilute the Word of God to avoid offending the religious establishment. There can be no compromise with tares, birds, and leaven. Let there be no toleration of the woman who leavens the pure word of Christ with paganism.
The Lord’s Desire
The Lord desires a church without tares, a church separated from the world and purely of Him. He desires a church of wheat, mustard herbs, and meal. Such a church produces food satisfying to both God and man. Some think that it is impossible for such a church to exist today. But before the Lord we must bear testimony to the fact that it is not only possible, but, to meet the Lord’s need and to satisfy His desire, it is necessary. In order for such a church to exist in a practical way today, we need to seek the Lord absolutely and consecrate ourselves utterly to Him so that we may have a part in the fulfillment of the desire of His heart. This is not only a spiritual matter, but also a practical one, for it involves separation from the tares, the big tree, and the leaven. May the Lord fulfill His desire for the proper church life in this generation!