What Does Christ Think of the Historic Church?
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 CRI has since withdrawn those criticisms and reversed its earlier conclusions (see “A Brief History of the Relationship between the Local Churches and the Christian Research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here for the historical record, for the important points of truth it addresses, and because CRI’s criticisms, although withdrawn, are still repeated by others.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 this article we shall continue our discussion of what Christ thinks of the historic church, the institutionalized church in its various forms as it has developed from the end of the apostolic era until the present. We shall consider the Lord’s word to the seven churches in Revelation 2 and 3.
A Prophetic History of the Church
The book of Revelation is prophecy, and the letters to the seven churches in Asia are prophetic. They are not only epistles directed to seven churches existing in the first century in seven actual cities in Asia; nor do they merely embody principles that can be applied to various situations throughout the course of the church on earth. These epistles are prophecies of the history of the church from the end of the apostolic era until the time of the Lord’s coming back. Regarding this, Arno C. Gaebelein says, “The seven churches represent the entire Church on earth…and the conditions of these seven churches foreshadow the different periods of the Church on earth from the Apostolic times to the ending days…” (The Revelation, p. 33). Here in Revelation 2 and 3 we are not dealing with human opinion, whether it supports historic Christendom or opposes it; we are dealing with the word of the Lord Jesus. If we do not dilute the Lord’s word, but let it speak with its own impact and power, we shall know what He thinks about the historic church.
The sequence of these seven churches matches the course of church history through the centuries. The epistle to the church in Ephesus portrays the church during the last part of the first century, at the end of the initial stage. The epistle to Smyrna prefigures the suffering church under the persecution of the Roman Empire, from the last part of the first century to the early part of the fourth century. The epistle to the church in Pergamos portrays the worldly church, the church married to the world. It covers the period from the acceptance of Christianity by Constantine in the fourth century to the establishment of the papal system in the latter part of the sixth century. The epistle to the church in Thyatira depicts the apostate church from the sixth century to the end of this age. The epistle to the church in Sardis foreshadows the churches that came out of the Reformation in the sixteenth century and that will continue until Christ’s coming back. The epistle to the church in Philadelphia portrays the recovery of the proper church life, which took place early in the nineteenth century. This epistle covers the time from the early nineteenth century to the second coming of the Lord. The epistle to the church in Laodicea prefigures the degraded recovered church, from the latter part of the nineteenth century until the Lord’s coming.
The Loss of the First Love
The history of the church from the end of the apostolic era until the Reformation is mainly a history of degradation. The Lord exposes the root of this degradation when He says, “But I have this against thee, that thou didst leave thy first love” (Rev. 2:4). Leaving the first love, or best love, for the Lord Jesus is the source of all the degradation in the following stages of the church. Concerning this loss of the first love, Gaebelein (p. 35) says:
Outwardly everything may have looked right, but the Lord, who desires the deepest affection of His people, knew that their hearts were departing from Him. This is the starting point of all church and individual failures.
It is very difficult to find much of the first love for the Lord Jesus in the historic church. However, this does not mean that there are none in the various organizations of the historic church who have a deep, sweet love for the Lord and seek an intimate heart-relationship with Him. Rather, it is simply to point out the fact that, as a whole, the historic church is not characterized by such love. On the contrary, those who love the Lord Jesus above all and who want to be poured out upon Him are often regarded as fanatics and persecuted. For example, Madame Guyon was imprisoned for loving the Lord. In various branches of the historic church today, people are encouraged to work for the Lord, but seldom are they encouraged firstly to love Him. But the Lord Jesus is not looking firstly for a church to work for Him – He wants a church to love Him.
Married to the World
Because the Lord Jesus has no word of either judgment or praise for the church in Smyrna, we may for our present purpose bypass this aspect of the historic church, the period of suffering, and proceed to the church in Pergamos, where we see delineated three prominent characteristics of the historic church. The first is that the church has now become married to the world. Prior to the time of Constantine the Great, Satan, the enemy of God, endeavored to destroy the church through persecution. Seeing that persecution was of no avail, Satan changed his strategy and, instead of instigating the world to persecute the church, he enticed the world to welcome it, luring the church into a marriage union with the Roman Empire. Symbolically the church in Pergamos prefigures the church which has entered into a marriage union with the world. Through the encouragement of Constantine and his political influence, multitudes of unbelievers were baptized into the so-called church, and the church became monstrously great. Because the church is espoused to Christ as a chaste bride, her union with the world is considered by God as spiritual fornication. In Lectures on the Book of Revelation (p.48), H. A. Ironside says:
Constantine’s patronage did what Diocletian’s persecution could not do. It corrupted the church, and she forgot her calling as a chaste virgin espoused to an absent Lord; then she gave her hand in marriage to the world that had crucified Him, thus entering into an unholy alliance of which she has never really repented.
To a very great degree, today the historic church is a church married to the world.
A second characteristic of the historic church seen in the epistle to Pergamos is the teaching of Balaam, the doctrine of the union of the church with the world. Balaam was a Gentile prophet who brought fornication and idolatry to God’s people (Num. 25:1-3; 31:16). In the worldly church, some began to teach the same things. This kind of teaching prevails today. Consider this example: a “Christian disco-night club,” recently opened in California, where young people can dance to “Christian rock” music!
Balaam is also the prototype of the hired prophet, one who preaches because he loves the wages of unrighteousness. This symbolizes the practice of hiring people to serve God and to speak for Him. Throughout the history of the historic church, the work of the clergy has been intimately related to the monetary system. Men are hired to fulfill this function, often serving the Lord not purely out of love for Him, but also out of the desire for financial advancement.
The third outstanding characteristic of the historic church seen in Pergamos is the doctrine of the Nicolaitans, something hated by the Lord. The doctrine of the Nicolaitans is the clergy-laity system, the teaching that in the church there are two classes of people: the clergy and the laity. Gaebelein (p. 38) has a clear word about this:
The best and perhaps only solution of this mysterious word is to examine its meaning. It is a Greek compound. Nikao means to have the upper hand, to domineer; laos means, the people (our English “laity”). Nicolaitans signifies “the domineers of the people.” A priestly class had sprung up in the church, domineering over the rest of the people, the so-called laity. And this domineering class claimed a superior place in the body of Christ…. This is what our Lord hates and what He hates we must hate with Him.
Instead of hating the doctrine of the Nicolaitans, the historic church embraces it, perpetuates it, and defends it. In some religious institutions this hierarchy is simple: one class of clergy rules the laity. But in others it is more complex, with the upper classes of the clerical hierarchy ruling those in the lower classes, and all together domineering the laity. The Lord utterly abhors this system; it is an abomination in His sight, for it violates His word that, because we are all brothers, we should call no man father or teacher (Matt. 23:9-10). Furthermore, it makes the practical function of the Body of Christ an impossibility because only a special class – the clergy – have the privilege of functioning in a full way.
The Apostate Church
Now we come to the church in Thyatira, the apostate church. The epistle to the church in Thyatira covers the apostate church from the latter part of the sixth century until the time of the Lord’s coming back. There are at least five aspects of Thyatira condemned by the Lord: the continuous sacrifice, the teaching of Jezebel, fornication, idolatry, and the depths of Satan.
In Greek the word Thyatira means “sacrifice of perfume,” or “unceasing sacrifice.” The church in Thyatira prefigures the apostate church full of sacrifices. Speaking of this continual sacrifice, Ironside (p. 50) says:
…Thyatira seemed to imply a continual sacrifice…. [The] continual sacrifice for the sins of the living and the dead…is the central, the root, blasphemy – the denial of the finished work of the Lord Jesus on Calvary’s cross – the one, only and all-sufficient offering for the sins of a guilty world.
The second aspect of Thyatira condemned by the Lord is the teaching of the woman Jezebel (Rev. 2:20). Jezebel is the one prophesied by the Lord in Matthew 13:33, the one who added leaven to the fine flour. Jezebel, the pagan wife of Ahab, was a type of the apostate church, and the teaching of Jezebel foreshadows the teaching of the apostate church. In the apostate church it is not a matter of what the Son of God says or of what the Word of God says, but of what the church says. Gaebelein remarks that the apostate church “has put a woman in the place of the Son of God,” and that the church “assumes the place of teacher and dictator; and Christ is rejected” (p. 38). Furthermore, Gaebelein points out that “Jezebel has a double meaning. It means ‘the chaste one’ but it also means ‘a dunghill.’ ” He says that the church represented by Jezebel “claims to be the Bride of Christ, but in reality is a dunghill of all vileness and corruption.” Then he concludes: “She exists today and will continue in her impenitent state till the predicted doom will overtake her” (p. 39).
The third feature of Thyatira condemned by the Lord is her fornication. The apostate church is filled with all manner of fornication, both spiritual and physical. In Revelation 17 she is called the great prostitute. This spiritual fornication, first countenanced in Pergamos, is the union of the church with the world. The church the Lord desires is a chaste virgin with a heart purely for Him. But the apostate church is not faithful to the Lord; rather, she indulges in fornication.
The fourth feature of Thyatira that the Lord judges is her idolatry. Idolatry is strictly forbidden in the second commandment (Exo. 20:4-5). Nevertheless, the apostate church is filled with it.
The fifth thing the Lord condemns, although implicitly, is the “depths of Satan.” The word “depths” figuratively denotes mysterious things. The apostate church has many mysteries or deep doctrines. The philosophy of these satanic mysteries has been used by Satan to damage and corrupt the church.
Incompleteness and Deadness
The epistle to the church in Sardis prefigures the various religious organizations which were established during and after the Reformation and which will continue until the Lord Jesus comes again. These organizations signified by Sardis are marked by two outstanding characteristics: incompleteness and deadness. The Reformation was God’s reaction to the apostate church. Although the Reformation accomplished some significant things, such as the recovery of justification by faith and the publication of the Scriptures in the language of the people, it did not go far enough; its work was not complete. For this reason, the Lord Jesus said, “I have not found thy works perfect before God” (Rev. 3:2). Because the Reformation did not bring the church back to God’s original intention, the Lord needs the church in Philadelphia.
Furthermore, the various religious organizations have become dead. The Lord said, “Thou hast a name that thou livest, and art dead” (Rev. 3:1). Speaking of Sardis, Gaebelein (p. 40) says:
The Reformation itself was of God and the great men who were used were the most mighty instruments of the Holy Spirit. It was the greatest work, up to that time, since the days of the Apostles. But out of it came…human systems…. The Reformation began well, but soon developed dead lifeless things…. They have a name to live but are dead.
Nothing is more abominable in the eyes of God than death. Although all Christians recognize the seriousness of sin, very few recognize the seriousness of death. God is the living One, and He cannot tolerate deadness. Although there are some living ones in the historic church, as a system it is characterized by deadness.
What the Lord Desires Today
Let us now summarize those aspects of the historic church condemned by the Lord and conclude with a brief word about what the Lord desires the church to be today In Ephesus we saw that the Lord rebuked the loss of the first love; in Pergamos, He judged the marriage to the world, the teaching of Balaam, and the doctrine of the Nicolaitans; in Thyatira, He condemned the continual sacrifice, the teaching of Jezebel, fornication, idolatry, and the depths of Satan; and in Sardis He disapproved of incompleteness and deadness. When the historic church is viewed as a whole, all these elements are seen in it, although not every characteristic is found in every branch of Christendom. Where in today’s religious organizations can we find a corporate group of people, not individuals, who have the best love for the Lord; who are separated from the world in an absolute way; who have abolished the clergy-laity system and meet simply as brothers and members of the Body of Christ; who have purged themselves of all the leaven, the evil mixture, brought in through the apostate church; who tolerate no form of idolatry or fornication; and who loathe incompleteness and deadness? There is no doubt that in the historic church there are individuals who are pure and absolute in their love for the Lord, who love what He loves and hate what He hates, and who have separated themselves from everything condemned by Him. But the historic church as a whole is not such an entity. Rather, it is permeated and saturated with the very things the Lord condemns in these epistles. Because the historic church has become so degraded, many of the Lord’s seekers have had to “go outside the camp” (Heb. 13:13); that is, they have had to seek the Lord Jesus and the fellowship of the Body outside the religious system of today.
This group of seekers is prefigured by the church in Philadelphia, the only church of the seven that is praised by the Lord. This indicates that it is the church in Philadelphia which satisfies the Lord’s desire and fulfills His purpose regarding the church. At present, it is sufficient to simply point out three outstanding characteristics of Philadelphia: brotherly love, keeping the Lord’s Word, and faithfulness to the Lord’s name. In Philadelphia there is no ecclesiastical hierarchy, no clergy-laity system. Everyone is simply a brother. In Philadelphia there are no heretical teachings or pagan practices; rather, the pure Word of the Lord is adhered to with an absoluteness not found in the historic church. In Philadelphia there is no compromise with the world; instead, every form of worldliness is condemned and compromise with the world is exposed. In Philadelphia there are no divisive names; on the contrary, there is just one name – the name of the Lord Jesus Christ. When the Lord Jesus died on the cross, giving Himself up for the church and purchasing her with His blood, His intention was to gain such a church as Philadelphia.
The Lord has spoken strongly in His Word regarding the situation of the historic church in its various manifestations. If we are faithful to Him, we shall echo His words in our generation. But our burden is not mainly to expose the shortcomings of the historic church. It is to cooperate with the Lord that He may have, as the preparation for His coming back, the practical expression of the church He desires. In faithfulness to the Lord we must stand outside of the historic church and apart from it. But in love for Him we must stand for Philadelphia and with Philadelphia. May the way be made straight and the sky clear for all the Lord’s seekers to follow Him for the fulfillment of His purpose regarding the church. May the desire of His heart be fulfilled in this generation.