The Great Apostasy Develops
“ONE Lord, one faith.” (Eph. 4:5) When the apostle Paul under inspiration penned those words (about 60-61 C.E.), there was but one Christian faith. Yet, today we see a profusion of denominations, sects, and cults that claim to be Christian, though they teach conflicting doctrines and hold to different standards of conduct. What a far cry from the one united Christian congregation that started on Pentecost 33 C.E.! How did these divisions come about? For the answer, we must go back to the first century of our Common Era.
From the very beginning, the Adversary, Satan, tried to silence the testimony of the Christian witnesses of Jehovah by bringing upon them persecution from those outside the congregation. (1 Pet. 5:8) First it came from the Jews and then from the Gentile Roman Empire. The early Christians successfully endured all manner of opposition. (Compare Revelation 1:9; 2:3, 19.) But the Adversary did not give up. If he could not silence them by pressure from those on the outside, why not corrupt them from within? While the Christian congregation was still in its infancy, its very existence was threatened by an internal enemy—apostasy.*
Apostasy, however, did not creep into the congregation unannounced. As Head of the congregation, Christ saw to it that his followers were warned in advance.—Col. 1:18.
“There Will . . . Be False Teachers Among You”
“Be on the watch,” cautioned Jesus, “for the false prophets that come to you in sheep’s covering.” (Matt. 7:15) Jesus knew that Satan would try to divide and corrupt His followers. So from early in his ministry, he warned them about false teachers.
From where would these false teachers come? “From among you yourselves,” said the apostle Paul about 56 C.E., when speaking to overseers of Ephesus. Yes, from within the congregation, men would “rise and speak twisted things to draw away the disciples after themselves.” (Acts 20:29, 30) Such self-seeking apostates would not be content to make their own disciples; they would endeavor “to draw away the disciples,” that is, Christ’s disciples.
The apostle Peter (about 64 C.E.) also foretold internal corruption and even described the way such apostates would operate: “There will . . . be false teachers among you. These very ones will quietly bring in destructive sects . . . With covetousness they will exploit you with counterfeit words.” (2 Pet. 2:1, 3) Like spies or traitors in an enemy’s camp, the false teachers, though arising from within the congregation, would infiltrate their corrupting views in a secret or camouflaged way.
These warnings of Jesus and his apostles were not in vain. Internal opposition had small beginnings, but it surfaced early in the Christian congregation.
“Already at Work”
Less than 20 years after Jesus’ death, the apostle Paul indicated that efforts of Satan to cause division and turn men away from the true faith were “already at work.” (2 Thess. 2:7) As early as about 49 C.E., in a letter sent out to the congregations, the governing body noted: “We have heard that some from among us have caused you trouble with speeches, trying to subvert your souls, although we did not give them any instructions.” (Acts 15:24) So some within the congregation were vocal about their opposing viewpoint—in this case evidently over the issue of whether Gentile Christians needed to get circumcised and observe the Mosaic Law.—Acts 15:1, 5.
As the first century progressed, divisive thinking spread like gangrene. (Compare 2 Timothy 2:17.) By about 51 C.E., some in Thessalonica were wrongly predicting that “the presence” of the Lord Jesus was imminent. (2 Thess. 2:1, 2) By about 55 C.E., some in Corinth had rejected the clear Christian teaching regarding the resurrection of the dead. (1 Cor. 15:12) About 65 C.E., others said that the resurrection had already taken place, it being of a symbolic kind that living Christians experience.—2 Tim. 2:16-18.
There are no inspired records as to what took place within the Christian congregation during the next 30 years. But by the time the apostle John wrote his letters (about 98 C.E.), there were “many antichrists”—persons who denied that “Jesus is the Christ” and that Jesus is the Son of God who came “in the flesh.”—1 John 2:18, 22; 4:2, 3.
For over 60 years, the apostles had ‘acted as a restraint,’ endeavoring to hold back the tide of apostasy. (2 Thess. 2:7; compare 2 John 9, 10.) But as the Christian congregation was about to enter the second century, the last surviving apostle, John, died, about 100 C.E. The apostasy that had slowly begun to creep into the congregation was now ready to burst forth unrestrained, with devastating organizational and doctrinal repercussions.
Clergy and Laity
“All you are brothers,” Jesus had said to his disciples. “Your Leader is one, the Christ.” (Matt. 23:8, 10) So there was no clergy class within Christian congregations of the first century. As spirit-anointed brothers of Christ, all the early Christians had the prospect of being heavenly priests with Christ. (1 Pet. 1:3, 4; 2:5, 9) As to organization, each congregation was supervised by a body of overseers, or spiritual elders.* All the elders had equal authority, and not one of them was authorized to ‘lord it over’ the flock in their care. (Acts 20:17; Phil. 1:1; 1 Pet. 5:2, 3) However, as the apostasy unfolded, things began to change—quickly.
Among the earliest deviations was a separation between the terms “overseer” (Gr., e·piʹsko·pos) and “older man,” or “elder” (Gr., pre·sbyʹte·ros), so that they were no longer used to refer to the same position of responsibility. Just a decade or so after the death of the apostle John, Ignatius, “bishop” of Antioch, in his letter to the Smyrnaeans, wrote: “See that you all follow the bishop [overseer], as Jesus Christ follows the Father, and the presbytery [body of older men] as if it were the Apostles.” Ignatius thus advocated that each congregation be supervised by one bishop,* or overseer, who was to be recognized as distinct from, and having greater authority than, the presbyters, or older men.
How, though, did this separation come about? Augustus Neander, in his book The History of the Christian Religion and Church, During the Three First Centuries, explains what happened: “In the second century . . . , the standing office of president of the presbyters must have been formed, to whom, inasmuch as he had especially the oversight of every thing, was the name of [e·piʹsko·pos] given, and he was thereby distinguished from the rest of the presbyters.”
The groundwork was thus laid for a clergy class gradually to emerge. About a century later, Cyprian, “bishop” of Carthage, North Africa, was a strong advocate of authority of the bishops—as a group separate from the presbyters (later known as priests*), the deacons, and the laity. But he did not favor the primacy of one bishop over the others.*
As bishops and presbyters ascended the hierarchical ladder, they left below it the rest of the believers in the congregation. This resulted in a separation between clergy (those taking the lead) and laity (the passive body of believers). Explains McClintock and Strong’s Cyclopedia: “From the time of Cyprian [who died about 258 C.E.], the father of the hierarchical system, the distinction of clergy and laity became prominent, and very soon was universally admitted. Indeed, from the third century onward, the term clerus . . . was almost exclusively applied to the ministry to distinguish it from the laity. As the Roman hierarchy was developed, the clergy came to be not merely a distinct order . . . but also to be recognised as the only priesthood.”
Thus, within 150 years or so of the death of the last of the apostles, two significant organizational changes found their way into the congregation: first, the separation between the bishop and the presbyters, with the bishop occupying the top rung of the hierarchical ladder; second, the separation between the clergy and the laity. Instead of all spirit-begotten believers forming “a royal priesthood,” the clergy were now “recognised as the only priesthood.”*—1 Pet. 2:9.
Such changes marked a defection from the Scriptural method of governing the congregations in apostolic days. Organizational changes, though, were not the only consequences of the apostasy.
Pagan Teachings Infiltrate
Christ’s pure teachings are a matter of record—they are preserved in the Holy Scriptures. For example, Jesus clearly taught that Jehovah is “the only true God” and that the human soul is mortal. (John 17:3; Matt. 10:28) Yet, with the death of the apostles and the weakening of the organizational structure, such clear teachings were corrupted as pagan doctrines infiltrated Christianity. How could such a thing happen?
A key factor was the subtle influence of Greek philosophy. Explains The New Encyclopædia Britannica: “From the middle of the 2nd century AD Christians who had some training in Greek philosophy began to feel the need to express their faith in its terms, both for their own intellectual satisfaction and in order to convert educated pagans.” Once philosophically minded persons became Christians, it did not take long for Greek philosophy and “Christianity” to become inseparably linked.
As a result of this union, pagan doctrines such as the Trinity and the immortality of the soul seeped into tainted Christianity. These teachings, however, go back much farther than the Greek philosophers. The Greeks actually acquired them from older cultures, for there is evidence of such teachings in ancient Egyptian and Babylonian religions.
As pagan doctrines continued to infiltrate Christianity, other Scriptural teachings were also distorted or abandoned.
Kingdom Hope Fades
Jesus’ disciples were well aware that they had to keep on the watch for Jesus’ promised “presence” and the coming of his Kingdom. In time, it was appreciated that this Kingdom will rule over the earth for a thousand years and transform it into a paradise. (Matt. 24:3; 2 Tim. 4:18; Rev. 20:4, 6) The Christian Bible writers exhorted first-century witnesses to keep spiritually awake and to keep separate from the world. (Jas. 1:27; 4:4; 5:7, 8; 1 Pet. 4:7) But once the apostles died, Christian expectation of Christ’s presence and the coming of his Kingdom faded. Why?
One factor was the spiritual contamination caused by the Greek doctrine of the immortality of the soul. As it took hold among Christians, the millennial hope was gradually abandoned. Why? The New International Dictionary of New Testament Theology explains: “The doctrine of the immortality of the soul came in to take the place of NT [New Testament] eschatology [the teaching on the “Last Things”] with its hope of the resurrection of the dead and the new creation (Rev. 21 f.), so that the soul receives judgment after death and attains to paradise now thought of as other-worldly.” In other words, apostate Christians thought that the soul survived the body at death and that the blessings of Christ’s Millennial Reign must therefore relate to the spirit realm. They thus transferred Paradise from earth to heaven, which, they believed, the saved soul attains at death. There was, then, no need to watch for Christ’s presence and the coming of his Kingdom, since at death they all hoped to join Christ in heaven.*
Another factor, though, actually made it seem to be pointless to watch for the coming of Christ’s Kingdom. The New Encyclopædia Britannica explains: “The [apparent] delay of the Parousia resulted in a weakening of the imminent expectation in the early church. In this process of ‘de-eschatologizing’ [weakening of the teaching on the “Last Things”], the institutional church increasingly replaced the expected Kingdom of God. The formation of the Catholic Church as a hierarchical institution is directly connected with the declining of the imminent expectation.” (Italics ours.) So not only were millennial blessings transferred from earth to heaven but the Kingdom was shifted from heaven to earth. This “relocation” was completed by Augustine of Hippo (354-430 C.E.). In his famous work The City of God, he stated: “The Church even now is the kingdom of Christ, and the kingdom of heaven.”
Meanwhile, in about 313 C.E., during the rule of Roman Emperor Constantine, legal recognition was given to Christianity, much of which by this time had become apostate in its thinking. Religious leaders were willing to be put into the service of the State, and at first the State controlled religious affairs. (Before long, religion would control State affairs.) Thus began Christendom,* part of which (the Catholic religion) in time became the official State religion of Rome. Now, the “kingdom” not only was in the world but was part of the world. What a far cry from the Kingdom that Christ preached!—John 18:36.
The Reformation—A Return to True Worship?
Like weeds flourishing in among strangled wheat, the Church of Rome, under its papal ruler, dominated worldly affairs for centuries. (Matt. 13:24-30, 37-43) As it became more and more a part of the world, the church grew further and further away from first-century Christianity. Through the centuries “heretical” sects called for reforms within the church, but the church continued to abuse power and amass wealth. Then, in the 16th century, the Protestant Reformation, a religious revolt, burst forth in all its fury.
Reformers such as Martin Luther (1483-1546), Ulrich Zwingli (1484-1531), and John Calvin (1509-64) attacked the church on various issues: Luther on the sale of indulgences, Zwingli on clerical celibacy and Mariolatry, and Calvin on the need for the church to return to the original principles of Christianity. What did such efforts accomplish?
To be sure, the Reformation accomplished some good things, most notably the translation of the Bible into languages of the common people. The free spirit of the Reformation led to more objective Bible research and an increased understanding of Bible languages. The Reformation did not, however, mark a return to true worship and doctrine.* Why not?
The effects of the apostasy had penetrated deep, to the very foundations of Christendom. Thus, although various Protestant groups broke free from the papal authority of Rome, they carried over some of the basic flaws of the Roman Catholic Church, features that resulted from the abandonment of true Christianity. For example, although the governing of the Protestant churches varied somewhat, the basic division of the church into a dominating clergy class and a subjugated laity was retained. Also retained were unscriptural doctrines such as the Trinity, the immortal soul, and eternal torment after death. And like the Roman Church, the Protestant churches continued to be part of the world, being closely involved with the political systems and the elite ruling classes.
Meanwhile, what about Christian expectation—watching for Jesus’ presence and the coming of his Kingdom? For centuries after the Reformation, the churches—both Catholic and Protestant—were deeply committed to secular power and tended to push off expectations of the coming of Christ’s Kingdom.
Stirrings of Watchfulness
In the 19th century, though, the religious climate led to stirrings of Christian watchfulness. As a result of Bible research on the part of some clergymen and Bible scholars, such teachings as the immortal soul, eternal torment after death, predestination, and the Trinity were restudied. In addition, some students of the Bible were closely examining Bible prophecies pertaining to the last days. Consequently, various groups of persons began thinking seriously about the Lord’s promised return.—Matt. 24:3.
In the United States, William Miller predicted the return of Christ in visible form in 1843 or 1844. The German theologian J. A. Bengel set the date for 1836; the Irvingites in England looked first to 1835, then 1838, 1864, and 1866. There was a Mennonite group in Russia that looked first to 1889, then to 1891.
Such efforts to keep on the watch served to awaken many to the prospect of our Lord’s return. However, these efforts at Christian watchfulness ended up in disappointment. Why? For the most part, because they relied too much on men and not enough on the Scriptures. After a few decades, most of those groups faded out of existence.
Meanwhile, during this period other developments had an impact on human hopes and expectations.
An Age of “Enlightenment” and Industrialization
In 1848, Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels published The Communist Manifesto. Instead of advocating religion, which Marx called “the opium of the people,” they advocated atheism. While ostensibly against all religion, they actually fostered the religion, or worship, of the State and its leaders.
About a decade later, in 1859, Charles Darwin’s Origin of Species was published; it deeply influenced the scientific and religious thinking of the time. The theories of evolution led to a challenging of the truthfulness of the Bible’s account of creation and of the introduction of sin through the disobedience of the first human pair. (Gen., chaps. 1-3) As a result, faith of many in the Bible was undermined.
Meanwhile, the industrial revolution was under way and gaining momentum. Emphasis switched from agriculture to industry and machine manufacture. The development of the steam locomotive (early 19th century) was leading to expansion of countrywide railroads. The latter half of the 19th century saw the invention of the telephone (1876), the phonograph (1877), the electric light (1878-79), as well as use of the Linotype in producing lines of type for printing (1884).
Mankind was entering a period of the greatest development of rapid transportation and communication in history. Although these benefits would be used to advance commercial and political ends, they would also be available to the religious field. The stage was thus set for a modest initiative by a small group of Bible students that would have worldwide effects.
In the Christian Greek Scriptures, the noun “apostasy” (Gr., a·po·sta·siʹa) has the sense of “desertion, abandonment or rebellion.” (Acts 21:21, ftn.) There it primarily has reference to religious defection; a withdrawal from or abandonment of true worship.
In the Scriptures the terms “overseer” and “older man,” or “elder,” refer to the same position. (Acts 20:17, 28; Titus 1:5, 7) “Older man” indicates the mature qualities of the one so appointed, and “overseer” the responsibility inherent in the appointment—watching over the interests of those persons entrusted to one’s care.
The English word “bishop” derives from the Greek term e·piʹsko·pos (“overseer”) as follows: from Middle English bisshop, from Old English bisceop, from Vulgar Latin biscopus, variant of Late Latin episcopus, from Greek e·piʹsko·pos.
The English word “priest” derives from pre·sbyʹte·ros (“older man,” or “elder”) as follows: from Middle English pre(e)st, from Old English prēost, from Vulgar Latin prester, contracted from Late Latin presbyter, from Greek pre·sbyʹte·ros.
In time the bishop of Rome, claiming to be a successor of Peter, was thought of as the supreme bishop and pope.—See Mankind’s Search for God, published by the Watchtower Bible and Tract Society of New York, Inc., 1990, pages 270-2.
Interestingly, Dr. Neander observes: “The false conclusion was drawn, that as there had been in the Old Testament a visible priesthood joined to a particular class of men, there must also be the same in the New [Testament] . . . The false comparison of the Christian priesthood with the Jewish furthered again the rise of episcopacy above the office of presbyters.”—The History of the Christian Religion and Church, translated by Henry John Rose, Second Edition, New York, 1848, p. 111.
This view mistakenly presumes that at death all Christians go to heaven. However, the Bible teaches that only 144,000 persons are called to rule with Christ in heaven. (Rev. 7:4-8; 20:4-6) Countless others can have the hope of everlasting life on a paradise earth under Christ’s Kingdom.—Matt. 6:10; Rev. 7:9, 15.
As used in this publication, the term “Christendom” refers to professed Christianity, in contrast with the true Christianity of the Bible.
For a fuller discussion of the Reformation and what it accomplished, see chapter 13, “The Reformation—The Search Took a New Turn,” in the book Mankind’s Search for God.
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While still in its infancy, the Christian congregation was threatened by apostasy
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Internal opposition had small beginnings
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Not only did apostates transfer millennial blessings from earth to heaven but they shifted the Kingdom from heaven to earth
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Plato and “Christianity”
The Greek philosopher Plato (born about 428 B.C.E.) had no way of knowing that his teachings would eventually find their way into apostate Christianity. Plato’s principal contributions to “Christianity” were in connection with the teachings of the Trinity and the immortality of the soul.
Plato’s ideas about God and nature influenced Christendom’s Trinity doctrine. Explains the “Nouveau Dictionnaire Universel”: “The Platonic trinity, itself merely a rearrangement of older trinities dating back to earlier peoples, appears to be the rational philosophic trinity of attributes that gave birth to the three hypostases or divine persons taught by the Christian churches. . . . This Greek philosopher’s conception of the divine trinity . . . can be found in all the ancient [pagan] religions.”—Volume 2, page 1467.
Regarding the immortal-soul doctrine, the “New Catholic Encyclopedia” says: “The Christian concept of a spiritual soul created by God and infused into the body at conception to make man a living whole is the fruit of a long development in Christian philosophy. Only with Origen [died about 254 C.E.] in the East and St. Augustine [died 430 C.E.] in the West was the soul established as a spiritual substance and a philosophical concept formed of its nature. . . . [Augustine’s] doctrine . . . owed much (including some shortcomings) to Neoplatonism.”—Volume XIII, pages 452, 454.
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Cyprian, “bishop” of Carthage, saw the bishops as being a class separate from the presbyters, the deacons, and the laity
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“The Church even now is the kingdom of Christ, and the kingdom of heaven” (Augustine of Hippo)
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Reformers who attacked the church on various issues
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Karl Marx’s “Communist Manifesto” actually fostered worship of the State. Charles Darwin’s “Origin of Species” deeply influenced the scientific and religious thinking of the time
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The steam locomotive
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The electric light
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The first telephone
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