When Did The Church Stray?

A recent convert to Catholicism posted a poignant question on a Catholic message board that had been created to address issues raised on an early encarnation of this forum..

The question: When did the Church go astray?

My Response: The Church has never gone astray.

Now don't you Catholic readers go setting off fireworks yet. I am talking about the true Church, the Church that was born when the Holy Spirit descended on those gathered at Pentecost and the Savior ascended into Heaven to sit at the Father's side. Some like to say that Church remains today and is known as the Roman Catholic Church. I would agree that the true Church indeed does exist to this day, but I will not accept that it is the RCC.

At first, the true Church was a small affair, made up just of those first blessed with the indwelling of the Holy Spirit. That did not last long, for these new saints (and that is what I call all who are truly saved, in the "fundamentalist" style) rushed out into the crowded streets of Jerusalem and proclaimed the life-saving message of the Gospel. In no time, thousands were added to the rolls. and so the message was spread. The Apostles and others proclaimed the Good News in the streets and shuls of Jerusalem and then throughout Israel, Judea and the Diaspora.

The Apostles, those who had travelled with and been taught by the Master Himself, were blessed with a special annointing and protected from teaching error. That was not the case with every one of the others, and error soon crept in. You can read about the Judaizers and the problems they caused in Acts 15 and Galatians 2. Paul confronted Peter and James and John for yielding to pressure from the Judaizers and turning aside from the truth they had been given. The first church council we know of was in Jerusalem and one of the issues it addressed was whether Christians needed first to be Jews or to conform to Levitical Law.

Even then, just a few years after the Church's formation, there was error. It was not the Church that had strayed, however, but men who sought to impose their insights and "wisdom" on the faithful.

As the Gospel was carried far afield, the same things continued to happen. Men, claiming special revelation or understanding "discovered" doctrines in what was as yet an oral tradition and added to that tradition. Soon, pockets of differing traditions formed. In some, the differences between what had been taught by the Lord and what was being taught by men were great, in others not so great. That this is so may be seen in the pastoral letters of the New Testament. The Apostles and other writers sent these letters to address growing deflection from the teachings of Christ and the annointed Apostles. Even then, it was not the true Church that had strayed, but men associated with it, men who were formulating new religions but who still embraced the faith received from God.

And so it went, down through the ages. Before the days of rapid communication and travel, it was not uncommmon for local or regional "churches" to incorporate homegrown touches into their worship and religious practice. We know that from Scriptures. The Jews in Israel and Judea, in the earliest days, met in their homes throughout the week, but went to shul on the Sabbath. They continued to honor many of the Levitical practices, such as ritual purification (mikvah), etc. In the Diaspora, Hellenistic influences were seen in the joyfilled gatherings that followed community worship, etc. Were all these local additions error? I could not say. But if they were, it was not the Church, the congregation of saints, that strayed, but some of the membership.

Over time, the number of regional churches was diminshed as different assemblies coalesced into larger, unified bodies. Thus were formed various "apostolic sees," some holding close to foundational teachings of Christ as expounded by the Apostles and some drifting into serious error. Always, even then, it was not the Church that was going astray, but some of those affiliated with those regional churches and in positions to influence their direction.

As the "factional churches" (for want of a better term) grew in numbers and influence, more and more "new revelations" and understandings were propounded. Some were blatantly in error -- such as Pelagianism, Montanism, Sabellianism, etc. Some were more insidiously flawed, and it is in this area that I would place many of the distinctives of the Roman Catholic Religion. History records numbers of sects such as the Waldenses, the Albigenses, etc., that were neither Catholic nor Christian, though they bore the outer trappings of Christianity. Always, God preserved a remnant of the true Church, even through the most difficult times. Always it was some of the membership who strayed.

That is the case today. There is still a remnant of the true Church, men and women who are called by God to salvation and who hold fast to pure doctrine as they are able. I do not believe these can be identified as the membership of any church, not even the Roman Catholic Church -- despite her claims to that effect. And, no, I do not believe that Southern Baptists or Lutherans or Presbyterians or any other so-called Protestant church has a lock on the claim to be the true Church.

Where is the true Church, that remnant God always preserves? I believe the membership may be found scattered throughout the ranks of Protestant (all flavors) and Catholic (all flavors) faithful. And there can be no doubt that some can be counted among the children of Israel. The true Church is everywhere that God's elect may be found. I believe myself to be numbered in that assembly, and I pray it be so. We are not all living perfect lives, nor even presenting a perfect witness for Christ, but we do hold fast to the faith once delivered to the saints and that saving faith is a gift from God to us that did not have to be filtered through the religiosity of denominationalism, Protestant, Catholic or whatever.

That is my answer, I suspect it was not what she was looking for, but it is what I earnestly believe.

More than likely, she was seeking some point in time when the primitive church slipped into error; something she could grab hold of. I don't pretend to have that answer, and I would not lie to her by trying to invent something I think would please her. I do not believe she would have wanted me to, in any case.

I believe that the Roman Catholic Church inherited errors when it finally came into its own during the reign of Leo I and that it has, over the centuries, compounded those errors through the addition of a multitude of doctrines that originated in the imaginings of men. I believe that the assemblies that grew out of the Reformation are far from perfect in their doctrine and practice and the dates of their falling away can be pinpointed in recent history.

Please do not read the words above as having emanated from the puffed up mind of an elitist who believes that only he has true knowledge and true faith. That would be far from the truth. Scriptures call believers to assemble for worship and remembrance of Christ's vicarious atoning sacrifice. We are called to teach and be taught and to confront error. No man, believer or not, can do that alone. We need the support and fellowship of other believers in our worship and in our lives.

Am I about to declare that MY denomination is the only one with true understanding of God's Word and will? Nope. I will not again have my name inscribed on the roles of any church but the True Church, and that list is known also as the Lamb's Book of Life. When I am able, I worship with others here in Texas in a Bible-believing assembly. When in Mexico, I worship with brethren in an Evangelical Free Church.

It is my conviction that the saints, that body of people who are truly saved by God's free gift of faith, are to be found throughout the land. Some may worship with Catholics; however, their trust is not in Rome's teachings and promises, but in the promises of Christ. Others may be found among Baptists of any number of denominations, or Presbyterians or in the exuberant gatherings of the Assemblies of God. In short, we are to be found wherever God first found us or where He placed us.

3 Beloved, when I gave all diligence to write unto you of the common salvation, it was needful for me to write unto you, and exhort you that ye should earnestly contend for the faith which was once delivered unto the saints.
4 For there are certain men crept in unawares, who were before of old ordained to this condemnation, ungodly men, turning the grace of our God into lasciviousness, and denying the only Lord God, and our Lord Jesus Christ.
--Jude 1:3-4

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