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"The study of God's word, for the purpose of discovering God's will, is the discipline which has formed the greatest characters." - James W. Alexander
BIBLE LESSONS QUICK LIST
- The Canon of the Old Testament
- The Canon of the New Testament
- Modern Bible Translations
- Paul's Apostleship and Authority
- Interpreting/Understanding the Bible
- Jesus: Eternal and Divine Son of God
- Jesus: Born, but Not Begotten
- God's Amazing Grace
- What is the Gospel?
- The Passion of the Christ
- A Study of Baptism
- Assurance of Salvation
- Origins of Christian Worship
- A History of Church Divisions
- Introduction to Denominations
- Examining Catholic Doctrines
- False Doctrines of the Early Church
- Three Days and Three Nights
- Predestination and Calvinism
- The Holy Spirit: Our Help and Strength
- What is Speaking in Tongues?
- The Grace of Giving
- The Day Christ Comes Again
- Works and Rewards
- Introduction to the Book of Revelation
- The Divorce Debate
- Genesis, Creation, Dinosaurs, etc.
- Abortion, Stem Cell Research, etc.
A History of Church Divisions
Written by Bob Williams
In Matthew 16:18, Jesus said, "I will build My church." Throughout the pages of the New Testament we read about that one church of Christ. Today, however, there are literally hundreds of denominations throughout the religious world. We have divided ourselves from that one original church into numerous groups with distinctive names and various teachings. And this is what the world sees: a divided group of people urging them to believe the gospel and accept Jesus as their Savior... each in our own particular way stressing our own particular beliefs. How did all this come to pass?
Division in the 2nd Century Church
Scripture (as well as secular writings of that time) gives us a reasonable understanding of what the church was like in the 1st century. Our Lord established one church and pleaded for its unity. But, in the 2nd century, following the death of the apostles, this unity began to suffer as some began to introduce some teachings and practices that would result in a church far different than that one found in the writings of the NT.
Paul had warned the elders in Ephesus, "Be on guard for yourselves and for all the flock, among which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers, to shepherd the church of God which He purchased with His own blood. I know that after my departure savage wolves will come in among you, not sparing the flock; and from among your own selves men will arise, speaking perverse things, to draw away the disciples after them" (Acts 20:28-30).
It happened as Paul had predicted: the first change was in regards to the manner of church government, in particular, the eldership. According to Scripture (Acts 14:23; also confirmed by secular writings of that time), each individual congregation was governed by a plurality of elders (also known as bishops, overseers, or pastors). It was perhaps around 150 AD that some decided to alter this divine pattern by elevating one elder above the others and giving him alone the title of bishop. Ultimately the plurality of elders was replaced with only one bishop in each congregation.
Soon these bishops met together to discuss church policies and procedures. Throughout the next several centuries, a variety of doctrines and teachings would be introduced. Preachers came to be called priests and were forbidden marriage. The Lord's Supper became the Eucharist and the Mass. The doctrine of original sin was introduced; infant baptism then followed. Pagans came into the church and brought with them numerous traditions that would eventually be integrated into the church. Heathen temples became places of worship; their ornate statues came to represent Mary and other "saints."
The name "Catholic" was adopted; it means universal even though there were always those who opposed this majority (such were deemed as heretics and often persecuted). Eventually there developed a three-fold hierarchy of the pope, cardinals, and bishops who would dictate the beliefs and practices of the church. Though it was claimed that all such teachings were of divine institution from the apostles, no direct reference to such was/is to be found in Scripture. Little by little this "magesterium" of men continued to introduce new doctrines and practices. As each century passed, this developing church organization looked less and less like the simple Christianity of the NT.
Early in the 4th century Christianity became the state religion. When the Roman Empire divided, so also did the Catholic church. A schism gradually developed between the Eastern and the Western church regarding the authority of the pope. The East disagreed with the primacy of the Roman bishop and instead demanded that disputes be settled by an Ecumenical council. The gap widened even further with the teaching of papal infallibility. The division was culminated in 1054 with the establishment of the Orthodox church. (There would later be further divisions as many opposed Roman doctrines such as celibacy, papal infallibility, birth control, etc.; they are known as Old Catholics or American Catholics.)
In the 1530s, King Henry VIII wanted a divorce from Queen Catherine. When the pope refused to grant it, the king eventually began the Church of England (also known as Anglican) and made himself the supreme head of it. When the United States of America later gained independence, the Anglican congregations there broke their ties to England. Thus was born the Episcopal church with Samuel Seabury becoming the first bishop in Connecticut in 1784.
The invention of the printing press and the distribution of the Bible in the common language of the people helped to bring about the great reformation movement…
It is commendable when people acknowledge that they have strayed from the truth and that they need to return to being what they ought to be. There is a story in the Bible about such; it is recorded in 2 Kings 22 and 2 Chronicles 34. The religion of Israel had adapted so much to its culture that it no longer resembled the religion God had originally established through Moses. Numerous kings had done evil in the sight of the Lord and the temple of God itself had been corrupted by foreign idols, etc. But then Josiah became king, and he was not the kind of king like those before him. Josiah was a very good king, a king who did what was right in the sight of the Lord, and a king who determined that he would rebuild the temple of God.
While the workers were repairing the house of the Lord, the Bible says that they found the book of the law that the Lord had given to Moses years before. It was brought before King Josiah and read to him. 2 Chronicles 34:19 says, "And it came about when the king heard the words of the law that he tore his clothes." King Josiah was indeed greatly distressed because hearing the words of the law which had been neglected for so long made him realize how drastically Israel had moved away from what God had commanded. And so he began the greatest restoration movement in Israel's history. He was determined to go back to the way that God had commanded. Throughout the years before him, the people had moved further and further away from God's ways, but Josiah took the book of the law and lead the people back to the way they should be.
Throughout history, there have apparently been many men like Josiah. Time and time again these men have looked anew at the written word of God and determined to make changes in hopes of drawing nearer to God's will. While such an attitude is to be commended, it must also be noticed that each new effort of reformation brings yet another group with another name.
Perhaps there may always been hundreds or thousands of diverse groups wearing different names in recognition of their diverse beliefs and practices. But let us always remember that we ought to hold one name and one name alone above all man-made names: JESUS CHRIST! He alone is our Savior. Let us unite to promote Him and His saving gospel far above those things that would otherwise divide us.
Copyright © 1998-2010. Bible Lessons Worldwide Ministry. Bob Williams. Mobile, Alabama. Permission is granted to any teacher or preacher to use these lessons to the glory of God. Thanks to generous soul-loving partners, there is never a charge for anything offered by this ministry.
Bob Williams and his family are members of the Azalea City Church of Christ in Mobile, Alabama where he oversees the Adult Education Ministry and regularly teaches Bible classes. He is an alumnus of York College in York, NE (1977-1979), Freed-Hardeman University in Henderson, TN (1982-1985), and Harding University Graduate School of Religion in Memphis, TN (1986-1990). Since its inception in 1998, thousands of people throughout the world visit BibleLessons.com every month, and Bob is privileged to conduct in-depth Bible studies with a great many of them.