The Five Periods of Church History
To understand the growth, development, and difficulties facing the church over the centuries, it is helpful to recognize five distinct periods of church history. A recognition of these separate spans of time will provide immeasurable assistance in comprehending the religious scene of our own day.
1. The New Testament Period
The church was prophesied hundreds of years before it came into existence (Isaiah 2:2-3; Daniel 2:44). It was, indeed, a part of the eternal purpose of God (Eph. 3:10-11). During his personal ministry on earth, Jesus promised to build his church (Matt. 16:18). He stated that the church or kingdom would come "with power" (Mark 9:1). The apostles were to receive power when the Holy Spirit came upon them (Acts 1:8). The Holy Spirit fell upon them on the day of Pentecost (Acts 2:1-4). Therefore, we may conclude the following:
(1) The power came from the Holy Spirit,
(2) the Spirit fell upon them upon the day of Pentecost,
(3) the kingdom was to come with power, and
(4) consequently, the kingdom came upon the day of Pentecost.
It is noteworthy in the scriptures that the first of God's creation comes miraculously and, after that, such creation is propagated by law. The first man and woman were brought into being by miraculous action: man from the dust of the earth, and woman from the side of the man. God set into operation the law of procreation through the natural birth. Sometimes people exclaim when a baby is born, "It is a miracle!" Strictly speaking, that is not correct. A baby is born according to the normal processes of natural law. The first humans were miraculously produced, but others, except for the Lord Jesus Christ, are produced according to God's natural law.
The same can be said of the church which is the spiritual body of Christ. It was brought into being miraculously when the Holy Spirit descended with power upon the day of Pentecost. The church is now propagated by spiritual law. Wherever the gospel is preached, and the seed is planted, the church of the Lord will take root. Just as the first man and woman were prototypes for all men and women who would come after them, so the first church stands as the model for all congregations that would come after it. Therefore, in the Jerusalem church and others established in the first century, we learn about the gospel plan of salvation, the organization and worship of the church, and what God wanted the church to be. The New Testament church is our pattern even today.
2. The Falling Away
Notwithstanding the establishment of the church according to God's purpose, there were early warnings about an apostasy or "falling away" from God's original plan (II Thess. 2:1-8). If God had not warned us, it might have challenged our faith to see such a departure from the truth. We would have wondered how a divine institution could have strayed from the righteous path. Fortunately, however, God in his wisdom warned us and foretold that there would be a departure from the truth (I Tim. 4:1-4); Grievous wolves would enter in not sparing the flock (Acts 20:28-31).
The first changes arose in the government of the church, i.e., the manner in which the church was organized. The early church was congregational in form, with each local body being overseen by elders and served by deacons (Phil. 1:1). In each congregation where men were qualified, the church was ruled by a plurality of elders (Acts 14:23; Titus 1:5). In time, with changes coming gradually, the government of the church moved in the direction of a hierarchy. Instead of elders (plural) in a congregation (singular), one elder exercised dominance over the work. Later, there was one bishop or elder over several churches until eventually there were five prominent cities where power was extended over all the churches. These metropolitan centers were located at Jerusalem, Antioch, Alexandria, Constantinople, and Rome. Much of the change in church organization paralleled the governmental structure of the Roman empire under Constantine. Finally, Constantinople and Rome became pre-eminent, and controversy arose between them as to which was superior.
These developments were moving rapidly toward the idea of having one head over all the church along the same lines that the emperor was ruler over the Roman empire. In Constantinople John the Faster proclaimed that he was the "universal bishop" over all the church, but the bishops of Rome opposed him. Ultimately, the bishops of Rome prevailed. Many believe the first actual pope was not the apostle Peter, as claimed, but Boniface III around 606 A.D. The apostasy prophesied by the apostle Paul was a reality.
3. The Dark Ages
The Dark Ages are actually a continuation of the great apostasy. This period was characterized by a decrease in classical learning, growth in the power and influence of the papacy, and the presence of religion in every aspect of daily life. Many changes were made in the apostolic order. Infant baptism was introduced, the Lord's Supper was transformed from a simple memorial to a ceremony in which it supposedly became the literal body and blood of Christ, instrumental music was made a part of the worship, Mary was venerated as the "Mother of God," and prayers were offered through the saints. The church that emerged during the Dark Ages bore little resemblance to the simple body of Christ that existed in the first century.
4. The Reformation
Perhaps it was only a matter of time until the changes and corruptions in the apostolic faith would generate a reaction. On October 31, 1517, Martin Luther nailed his 95 theses to the door of the church in Wittenberg, Germany. These were criticisms of the Roman Catholic Church and, in effect, challenges for debate. The effect of these charges went far beyond the priesthood and the hierarchy of the Catholic Church, however, and began to spread like a prairie fire among the common people. Luther's work was the primary force that led to the time known as the Reformation (sometimes referred to as the Protestant Reformation).
Denominationalism, as we know it now, was an outgrowth of the Reformation.
From Luther to Henry VIII to John Wesley to John Calvin to John Smyth, there arose Lutherans, Episcopalians, Methodists, Presbyterians, and Baptists. These were all unknown in the first century, but they sprang into being as a result of the revolt against Catholicism. "Protestant" comes from the word "protest," and "Reformation" from the idea of "reform." The Protestant Reformation was a protest against the corruptions in Catholicism and an effort to reform the departures and innovations of the apostate church.
5. The Restoration
The Reformation was a significant step in the right direction, but in the end it failed to achieve its purpose. The attempts to reform and correct the abuses of the Catholic system led only to the establishment of multiple new denominations. Some still practiced infant membership, substituted sprinkling for immersion, used instrumental music in worship, and formulated new creeds and dogmas. Thomas Campbell, Alexander Campbell, Barton W. Stone, and others began to call for a "restoration of the ancient order." Their cry was, "Let us go back to the Bible." They urged men to "speak where the Bible speaks and to remain silent where the Bible is silent." Reformation sought to correct the abuses, but restoration endeavored to return to the original plan from which mankind had fallen away. What could be more noble than restoring God's original plan that existed before the apostasy?
Many were weary of denominational divisions and sectarian creeds, and they were thrilled by the plea to abandon the doctrines of men and to return to the Bible as our only guide. Churches began to spring up after the New Testament order. The gospel was preached as it was at the day of Pentecost. Thousands gladly heard the word and were baptized. The disciples were known as Christians (Acts 11:26), and they laid aside their denominational names and unscriptural designations.
Churches of Christ plead for a return to biblical authority. We seek a "thus saith the Lord" for what we teach and practice (Col. 3:17). The plea to return to New Testament Christianity is a valid and legitimate appeal. We urge all men to reach back beyond London, Geneva, Constantinople, and Rome. Go back to Jerusalem, to the beginning, to the day of Pentecost (Acts 2), and become what they were – Christians, disciples of Christ, and members of the church that Jesus built.