If I asked you when the reformation began what would we say? Would we say it began with John Wycliff and the translation of the Bible? Would we say it began with Martin Luther and the 95 theses? What would we say? Would you be surprised if I said that the reformation began in the first century?
Reform means to “make changes in”. It is a neutral word. It is not always good and it is not always bad. There are attempts to reform America today in a negative way. The desire to reform the home and family is an evil reformation. Other reformations throughout the years have been good. For example, the abolishment of slavery was a good reformation.
In every reform there is a perceived issue or problem that is being addressed or dealt with. It is similar to when a car manufacturer comes out with an “all new” model of a car they have been producing for 30 years. It has aspects that look the same but it has been reformed in places to fix some flaws in the previous design.
Reforms to the church came from the same thing. Perceived problems that needed to be fixed.
Paul spoke of the great problem that the church would have to deal with as he warned the Ephesian elders, “grievous wolves shall enter in among you, not sparing the flock”. This is similar language that Jesus used in Matthew 7:15, “Beware of the false prophets who come in as wolves in sheep’s clothing”. The biggest problem facing the church then and facing the church today is still false teaching. In response to this threat, leaders of the early church quickly began to reform the church that Jesus built.
One of the first reforms made to the church of the New Testament is a change in its organization.
In the Bible, bishops, elders, presbyters, and pastors were all in reference to the same office. But by the early second century a distinction was made between the offices. In “The Church in History”, B.K Kuiper said, “In the early Church the… elders were all of the same rank. But it was natural that in each congregation one of the presbyters should take the lead”. It may seem natural but it wasn’t biblical.
In the early writings of what are commonly called the church fathers, we see mention of the office of “the bishop”. This office is forgeign to the New Testament. There is never one man being called “the bishop” of a church except for Christ. Bishops/elders/pastors always served in a plurality in the church. There was never one bishop as the authority of a church in the Bible.
Along with this, larger churches became authoritative over other smaller congregations in that region. For example, the church in Ephesus may have had 1000 members and had other congregations that they worked with. These other congregations eventually were drawn under the authority of the church of Ephesus. By default, that one bishop over the church in Ephesus would now be over this cluster of churches.
As these reforms continued through the centuries the authority of the Bishops went from general respect for the position to absolute power. Ignatius wrote to the church in Philidelphia in the second century, “Do ye all follow your bishop as Jesus Christ followed the Father. Do nothing without the Bishop”. About 100 years later Cyprian, Bishop of Carthage said, “The church is based on the unity of the bishops. The bishop is in the church and the church is in the bishops. If anyone is not with the bishop, he is not with the church.”
About 400 years later these reformations would lead to the office of Pope and power of the Roman Catholic church.
The great apostasy of the church came through a series of gradual reformations to the church of Christ. It is possible that every reformer had good intentions. Perhaps they wanted to protect the church from the false doctrine and that is why they did what they did. But the church of Christ never needs reforming. The faith that He established was delivered once and for all (Jude 3). And in the word of God, we have an answer for every problem and threat that the church could ever face (2 Pet 1:3).
In 2 Thessalonians 2:3-7 Paul warned of the reformations to the church of Christ. He said that one is “going to sit in the temple of God setting himself forth as God”. One man sitting in a seat of authority of in temple of God is a seat that God didn’t give. It doesn’t matter if it is “the bishop” the archbishop, the cardinal, the pope, or a pastor of churches today.
Interestingly, Paul said these things “doth already work”. The reformers were already active in the first century.
We are given an early example of one of these renegades in 3 John 9 by the name of Diotrephes. He made himself “preeminent among them”, did not receive the apostle and casted people out of the church. He was reforming the church by placing himself in a seat of authority he wasn’t granted.
There are a number of points to make from this history.
First, the Lord’s church never needs to be reformed. The “problems” that the church faced in its early existence would have been handled perfectly through the word of God. Reforming the church was never the right answer and it still isn’t. Every single denomination is a reformation of the Biblical model.
Second, we should have no desire to be apart of anything that doesn’t resemble the church of the New Testament. Even something that seems as harmless as a “pastor” lead church is a departure from what God has revealed in scripture. It doesn’t matter how many churches are doing it. It doesn’t matter how many benefits you can find to that model. It is wrong.
Third, God knew this would happen and he has given us a to tool solve the problem. In the 1800’s a significant group of people saw this problem of reformation. They realized the answer was in restoring the Church of Christ as it is presented in the New Testament. They desired to go back to the original. These people acted on faith that the Bible can be the guide in all religious matters. They dropped all denominational affiliations and planted what the Lord planted, the seed of the kingdom, the word of God (Luke 8:11). What grew was the church of Christ that looked like the church of Christ of the first century!
Please visit with us and see the New Testament church for yourself!