6. Institution of the error
Take heed therefore unto yourselves, and to all the flock, over the which the Holy Ghost hath made you overseers, to feed the church of God, which he hath purchased with his own blood. For I know this, that after my departing shall grievous wolves enter in among you, not sparing the flock. Also of your own selves shall men arise, speaking perverse things, to draw away disciples after them.
So hast thou also them that hold the doctrine of the Nicolaitanes, which thing I hate.
By “institution of the error” I simply mean the period in church history in which the original problem had now become entrenched or thoroughly established, a part of the fabric of church function, order, and polity. “Institution of the error” also means the problem had become systemic, that is, thoroughly affecting the entire visible church, just as a cancer may start in one part of the body and eventually affect the whole. Further, it means the error had been formalized, that is, established in traditions that came to be held sacred.
“Them that hold the doctrine of the Nicolaitanes” means either 1) that there were people in the churches who continued to subscribe to teachings of the men initially called Nicolaitanes by Jesus, or 2) these people subscribed to the teachings of those who currently taught the doctrine of the Nicolaitanes. Or, 3) it means that what were formerly the deeds (works, or practices) had by now become a part of the doctrine of the church. That is how false traditions were established: first they were simply practiced, then they were justified doctrinally. The practices were “read into” the Bible rather than actually found there. (E.g., Paul’s admonishing Timothy to let no man despise his youth has been interpreted to imply a young pastorate; a man’s “calling” to the pastorate is taken as evidence he is one of the men given to the church by Christ based on Ephesians 4:11. Etc.)
The doctrine of the Nicolaitanes was evidently corrupt in many and various aspects. While it would be speculation to attribute particular teachings to them, the meaning of “Nicolaitane” is not a matter of speculation.
I believe the heresy of Nicolaitanism was institutionalized, established, and formalized once and for all during the time of “the church fathers,” a period spanning the second through the fifth centuries A.D. These “fathers” taught doctrines, not a few of which were absolutely consistent with the meaning of “Nicolaitane.” They “conquered the people.”
Though the name of Nicolaitane disappears in subsequent churches in Revelation 2-3, the damage they inflicted has carried through all of church history, in Thyatira in “that woman Jezebel,” which correlates with the papal domination of the church from 500-1500 A.D., in the Reformation era, where the church had “a name that thou livest, and art dead,” Rev. 3:1, and continuing to the present day in Laodicea, the lukewarm church at the end of church history. Only the church that represents the true, invisible, spiritual church of Jesus Christ—Philadelphia—escapes the damage inflicted on the churches in history first by the Nicolaitanes. Philadelphia is the sole exception in the chronology of the seven churches in that it spans the entire age, representing the overcomers in all the churches. (The fact that overcomers in Philadelphia are promised a reward the same as overcomers in the other churches does not contradict this interpretation; it only means that all in Philadelphia receive an overcomer’s reward.)
Jesus said, “Call no man your father upon the earth: for one is your Father, which is in heaven.” Mt. 23:9. But many convoluted the plain meaning of this teaching, and therefore the church’s teachers speak of “the church fathers” with impunity. (Augustine is endlessly cited in sermons.) Why did the church suspend application of this teaching for these particular men? What made these men the exceptions? Calling these men “fathers” was and is absolutely indefensible. The result has been poisonous.
A prevailing view concerning “the church fathers” was and is that these were successors to the apostles and prophets. However no successors were needed. The faith was “once delivered unto the saints,” Jude 3. Delivered by whom? By the apostles of Jesus Christ. The NASB translation is more emphatic, “once for all handed down to the saints.” Beyond this there was nothing to add to the faith of Jesus Christ. No “additional details,” no “additional fine tuning of Christian doctrine” needed. No church councils patterned after the council in Jerusalem (Acts 15) necessary. It is the apostles and prophets who are the foundation of the church, with Christ the chief cornerstone, Eph. 2:20.
In I Corinthians 3:11 it says, “For other foundation can no man lay that that is laid, which is Jesus Christ.” If it be protested that this established a niche for the “church fathers,” i.e., they built upon the foundation, which foundation is Christ, my reply is that the passage refers to every believer, to the necessity of his or her beginning with faith in Christ and building upon the foundation. It also applies to every teacher in the church in their instruction of believers. This passage is not limited in its application to either the “church fathers” or even to all the teachers in the history of the church. The proof of this is that the verses that follow, I Cor. 3:12-23, speak of eternal rewards for building with “gold, silver, precious stones,” and of suffering loss for building with “wood, hay, stubble.” Suppose each of us is not ultimately responsible for the building materials we use? We are responsible, and we are even responsible for the teachers we select and trust. At the judgment of the church not a one of us will be able to claim “victim status” due to the teachers we followed. No, for we have the Word and the Spirit.
So let us not read “the church fathers” into the New Testament.
But, some will protest, “the post-apostolic churches needed teachers.” To this my reply is that they indeed had teachers given them by Jesus Christ. These are of course mostly unknown in church history. However “the church fathers” were not these men, and they were never represented simply as teachers but as authorities over and above the churches and their elders.
Not only so, many if not most of “the church fathers” held that church authority and tradition were equal to or superseded the Scriptures. The first council of Ephesus, 431 A.D., decreed it “unlawful for any man to bring forward, or to write, or to compose a different Faith as a rival to that established by the holy Fathers assembled with the Holy Ghost in Nicæa.” But these men didn’t establish the faith, Jesus Christ did, and His apostles and prophets delivered it to us “once for all.”
Subsequent to the apostles’ demise, many of the churches began to stray from the Scriptures. The spiritual climate in the world at the time was dominated by polytheism and Greek philosophy. New Gentile converts to the faith of Jesus Christ were saved out of these traditions, “escaping though as by fire.” The problem is, not a one of us, after believing in Jesus, is easily disabused of our former religious and philosophical upbringing. Witness the first converts to the faith, nearly all of them Jews, and the necessity of the council in Jerusalem (Acts 15) to clarify the distinction between the Old Covenant and the New. So the first churches had to deal with many heresies, both from without and within. (But this is still true today.)
E.H. Broadbent wrote in his excellent history, “The Pilgrim Church,” “The means adopted to counter (heresies in the early church) and to preserve unity of doctrine affected the Church even more than the heresies themselves, for it was largely due to them that the episcopal power and control grew up along with the clerical system which began so soon and so seriously to modify the character of the churches.” The church’s method in responding to these errors drastically altered the very functioning of the churches. The heresies were addressed variously; the character of the churches was altered permanently and uniformly.
The “church fathers” were called “bishops.” However there was no plurality of these bishops as we find indicated in Acts 20, Phil. 1:1, or I Peter 5. Rather, these men were called “the bishop,” singular, as in “the bishop of Hippo,” “the bishop of Antioch,” etc. There was one to a city.
The “church fathers” claimed “apostolic succession” in the form of “the bishopric.”
Clement of Rome, considered “the third bishop of Rome” in Catholicism, wrote, “Our Apostles knew through our Lord Jesus Christ that there would be strife for the office of bishop. For this reason, therefore, having received perfect foreknowledge, they appointed those who have already been mentioned, and afterwards added the further provision that, if they should die, other approved men should succeed to their ministry.” (Letter to the Corinthians 44:1, A.D. 95).
Where is this “strife for the office of bishop” acknowledged in the New Testament epistles? In I Timothy 3:1 it says, “If a man desire the office of a bishop, he desireth a good work.” Paul encouraged the aged men to desire the office. Would that more of these desired the office of bishop in the churches! In Acts 14:23 it says Paul and Barnabas ordained elders (bishops), plural, in every church. But Clement, in his office as “bishop of Rome,” and his presumption of apostolic succession, shows the inclination of the “church fathers” to establish their own (albeit widely popular) tradition.
Ignatius (35-108 A.D.), “third bishop of Antioch,” wrote, “You must all follow the bishop as Jesus Christ follows the Father, and the presbytery as you would the Apostles. Reverence the deacons as you would the command of God. Let no one do anything of concern to the Church without the bishop. Let that be considered a valid Eucharist which is celebrated by the bishop, or by one whom he appoints. Wherever the bishop appears, let the people be there; just as wherever Jesus Christ is, there is the Catholic Church.” (Letter to the Smyrnaeans 8:1, A.D. 110.)
The key phrase is, again, “the bishop.” Then, too, Ignatius articulated a false distinction between “bishop” and “presbyter” when in actuality they refer to the same man. “Bishop” refers to the man’s function as overseer; “presbyter,” to the age of the man. These two terms, along with the term for “pastor,” poimaino, occur together in context in Acts 20 and I Peter 5. But ignorance of this was the beginning of the episcopal system with its myriad additional layers of authority that destroyed the independency of local churches and their elders. Church independency and autonomy, in Christ’s design for His church, is a protection against and limitation on the spread of heresy. The churches have the Word, they have Christ as Head, and they have the elders to guard against false doctrine. But under ecclesiasticism heresies are disseminated wholesale throughout entire sects or denominations. Often these heresies were promoted by “the bishop” himself. There was no check on this man because no plurality of bishops.
Irenaeus (130-202 A.D.), bishop of Lugdunum, wrote, “It is possible, then, for everyone in every Church, who may wish to know the truth, to contemplate the tradition of the Apostles which has been made known throughout the whole world. And we are in a position to enumerate those who were instituted bishops by the Apostles, and their successors to our own times: men who neither knew nor taught anything like these heretics rave about. For if the Apostles had known hidden mysteries which they taught to the elite secretly and apart from the rest, they would have handed them down especially to those very ones to whom they were committing the self-same Churches. For surely they wished all those and their successors to be perfect and without reproach, to whom they handed on their authority.” (Against Heresies 3:3:1, A.D. 180-199.)
The apostles did not “hand on their authority.” Or where do we find this teaching? Appointing elders is indeed conferring authority, but it is the authority of an elder and not an apostle. When a general appoints a colonel he confers the authority of a colonel, not a general.
Over whom did these “church fathers” assert authority? Why, the churches and their elders. And to whom did Paul issue his warning about wolves entering in? To the elders in Ephesus.
Paul instructed Titus to ordain elders, plural, in every city in Crete, Titus 1:5. (Titus, no pastor, was an evangelist, for he was doing the same work as Timothy, who was exhorted by Paul to do the work of an evangelist, II Tim. 4:5.) In Acts 14:23 it says Paul and Barnabas ordained elders in every church. Thus, whether elders are associated with cities or with churches, it is “the elders,” plural and not singular. What need, then, for another layer of “bishop” authority? It was unnecessary and it was nowhere authorized. When men in the church are given authority which is unauthorized in the Word, they must decline it. And if these “bishops” simply asserted their authority, then they were usurpers. It is much more likely, though, that the bishops asserted their authority because the people sanctioned it. The rise of “the bishop” and the sanction of the people for this office happened together.
Subsequent to the rise of “the church fathers,” and excepting remote corners of Christendom, eldership after the order of Ephesus was lost to history, though not a few churches retain “elders” in name. Meanwhile “the bishopric” abides in the local churches in the form of “one pastor, one church.” It is “pastor,” singular. As the church grows it adds “pastors,” of course. But the template is one pastor to a church. It is no surprise that these pastors exercise authority over the elders. Instead of the elders being the pastors, the “pastors” oversee the elders!
By the way, this was also John Calvin’s ecclesiology, and it of course predominates in Protestant, evangelical, and fundamental Christianity. It predominated a thousand years before Calvin (in the Catholic church), and he simply adapted it to Protestantism—all the while paying lip service to the NT teaching of the priesthood of believers. (Calvin also invented an office of “doctor” in the church. As an aside, please note that my opposition to Calvin’s ecclesiology should not be taken to mean opposition to the doctrines of election and predestination, both of which are taught in Scriptures, but have come to be associated with “Calvinism.” I fully believe in the doctrines of election and predestination as consistent with God’s sovereignty, omniscience, and foreknowledge. It is unfortunate that, today, it is doubtful whether one can attack Calvin’s teaching in any area of his theology without being suspected of Arminianism.) The fact is, the Reformation never changed church polity one iota, except it replaced the priesthood of Romanism with a quasi-priesthood called “the pastorate.” Neither, however, constituted the New Testament pastorate.
In moving from the church eldership indicated in the New Testament to “the bishopric” model, church order and function were permanently altered. This is not just about church leadership. It is about ministry and fellowship, the things we do when assembled, and the way we do them. In Acts 2:42 the key word is “they.” “They,” meaning all the saints, participated in the ordinances of the church: the doctrine, the fellowship, the breaking of bread, and in prayer. But under “the bishopric model” these ordinances are ministered to the people. Whereas in Acts the ordinances were administered bilaterally (“to one another”), in “the bishopric model” they are ministered unilaterally. In Acts and the NT epistles we find indicated the operation of the New Covenant priesthood; in “the bishopric model” we find the trappings of the Old Covenant priesthood.
Here are more examples of the false teachings of the “church fathers.” Cyprian (200-258), “bishop” of Carthage, is written of by E.H. Broadbent in his book, “The Pilgrim Church”--
“(Cyprian) freely uses the term ‘the Catholic church’ and sees no salvation outside of it, so that in his time the ‘Old Catholic Church’ was already formed, that is, the Church which before the time of Constantine claimed the name ‘Catholic’ and excluded all who did not conform to it.”
In his treatise “The Unity of the Church,” Cyprian wrote,
“Let not certain ones deceive themselves by an empty interpretation of what the Lord has said: ‘Whenever two or three have gathered together in my name, I am with them.’ Corrupters and false interpreters of the Gospel quote the last words and pass over earlier ones, being mindful of part and craftily suppressing part. As they themselves have been cut off from the Church, so they cut off a sentence of one chapter. For when the Lord urged unanimity and peace upon His disciples, He said: ‘I say to you that if two of you agree upon earth concerning anything whatsoever that you shall ask, it shall be granted you by my Father who is in heaven. For wherever two or three have gathered together in my name, I am with them,’ showing that the most is granted not to the multitude but to the unanimity of those that pray…He taught that we should agree faithfully and firmly. But how can he agree with anyone, who does not agree with the body of the Church herself and with the universal brotherhood?
Concerning dissenters against his “Catholic church,” Cyprian wrote,
“What peace then do enemies of the brethren promise themselves? What sacrifices do the imitators of priests believe that they celebrate? Do they who are gathered together outside the Church of Christ think that Christ is with them when they have gathered together?
Thus believers meeting outside “the Catholic church” were “enemies of the brethren,” they were “imitators of priests” and not actually priests, and they actually believed Christ’s promise! This is a system of intimidation to keep the people in line. The apostles never taught these things and neither did they teach this way.
Origen (185-254) wrote, “Who is so foolish as to believe that God, like a husbandman, planted a garden in Eden, and placed in it a tree of life...so that one who tasted of the fruit obtained life?” (“De Principiis,” Book IV, Chapter 1.16.) Origen taught that the teaching in Genesis was symbolic, thus shipwrecking the faith of many. This is the beginning of the spiritualization of Scriptures, by which the Bible is wrested from the people in order to be safely interpreted for them by the learned. Granted, some Scripture passages are not interpreted literally (e.g., Jesus saying we must eat His flesh and drink His blood), but on what basis do we not take God at His word when it is written that He planted a garden in Eden and placed in it a tree of life? Origen may have been unduly influenced by the Greek philosophers and their “symbols” representing “invisible and eternal things.” Does this make him a “church father?”
Augustine (354-430), “bishop” of Hippo, declared, “Also, it is the pleasure of the bishops in order that whoever denies that infants newly born of their mothers, are to be baptized or says that baptism is administered for the remission of their own sins, but not on account of original sin, delivered from Adam, and to be expiated by the laver of regeneration, be accursed.” (Wall, The History of Infant Baptism, I, 265.) The seeds of the evil Inquisition and of the persecution of the Anabaptists are found here. Infant baptism, with an inference that it saves the infant from his or her sins, is an affront to the gospel of Jesus Christ. And if it is only a nice ceremony that doesn’t save, it confuses infant baptism with true baptism which is to follow one’s believing the gospel. But here, Augustine declared dissenters against this unbiblical rite under anathema! I consider this to be wicked presumption of the highest order. Much blood of the saints was shed over this!
Suffice to say these are not harmless errors. Neither are they isolated errors in these men’s doctrine. These men taught heresies, some of them damnable. II Peter 2:1 says, “But there were false prophets also among the people, even as there shall be false teachers among you, who privily shall bring in damnable heresies, even denying the Lord that bought them and bring upon themselves swift destruction.” Errors such as the ones noted above (and below) disqualify a man, except he repent of the error, from the Christian ministry. (If a man speaks in error in the church, and is corrected, and he repents and retracts his teaching, this is commendable before God. No harm is done, and in fact the saints are edified by witnessing the correction.) No level of learning or eloquence mitigates these errors. And even a mountain of sound teaching, assuming it were possible atop elementary errors, could not atone for these perverse teachings, the falsehood of which is discernible by any believer reading the Bible in faith (although not by the millions of unbelievers in the churches). One incapable of teaching even the elementary truths is by definition disqualified from teaching in the churches.
Not that we should expect our teachers to be infallible. However these men were clearly heretics concerning elementary teachings of the faith. They showed themselves not approved unto God. But not only were these errors not judged by the people to disqualify “the church fathers” from Christian ministry, their false teachings did not even hinder them from rising to power as bishops! This can only happen in a church that was even at an early date in church history worldly and increasingly populated by unbelievers and immature believers, those who would tolerate or even clamor for “a bishop.” Thus the verse following II Peter 2:1, above, “And many shall follow their pernicious ways; by reason of whom the way of truth shall be evil spoken of.” So we are to understand that these men did not ascend to authority in the church through usurpation (though it was indeed usurpation according to the Scriptures) but as a result of popular demand.
A catalog of heresies taught by the “church fathers” includes the following. A church has not only elders but a ruling bishop. A church does not have authority to observe the Lord’s supper without a bishop. The Scriptures are to be interpreted allegorically. Purgatory. Transubstantiation. Baptism is for the forgiveness of sins. Infant baptism. Confession of sins to a bishop. Mariology. Denied the inspiration of Scriptures. Salvation by works. Asceticism. The death penalty for heretics. Sacraments are a means of saving grace. Amillenialism. Celibacy. The early chapters of Genesis are not to be interpreted literally. Apostolic succession.
Most of these errors are connected with Roman Catholicism. So you see, “the church fathers” are the “fathers” of the Roman Catholic church, and many or most of them are identified as such. Protestants rejected many though not all of these teachings, but that was over a thousand years later. There were certainly faithful dissenters during the time of “the church fathers,” but the point is, these were already a minority. Catholicism came to dominate the church, even at an early point in church history.
Nevertheless a majority of the dissenting groups in church history—the Waldenses, the Albigenses, the Lollards, the Anabaptists, the Protestants, the Pilgrims, the Puritans, the Baptists, etc., etc.—retained or still retain a church polity that has been passed down in history from the time of “the bishops.” It is called clericalism, and believers and unbelievers alike in the churches (and, indeed, in the world) have fallen prey to it. We do not say all the pastors following in this tradition throughout history are bad men or false teachers. Far from it. Many were (or are) believers; most were (or are) not. We do say all succumbed to the tradition they inherited, and that they were injured by it even as the churches have been.
For all their heresies, it is truly the traditions they established which form the legacy of “the church fathers.” They permanently changed the ordinances of the church, those “things delivered” which are the essence of Christian fellowship when all come together on the Lord’s day. Paul wrote, “Now I praise you, brethren, that ye remember me in all things, and keep the ordinances, as I delivered them to you.” The ordinances—truly, fellowships—were to be kept as delivered by Paul and the apostles. On this, Thomas Hughes Milner wrote,
There is a world of difference between “joint and common privileges,” and being ministered to by professionals. One is participatory; the other is idle spectating. The church calls both “fellowship,” but the ordinances have been changed.
Acts 2:42 is often cited as an example for the churches to imitate. “And they continued stedfastly in the apostles’ doctrine and fellowship, and in breaking of bread, and in prayers.” But if these ordinances were originally joint participations and subsequently modified to mean “things ministered to the laity by the clergy,” were not the ordinances changed? It is not only what the churches do but how we do these things.
Then, too, the meaning of ordinance was long ago changed. When Paul wrote Corinth, in I Cor. 11:2, commending them for keeping the ordinances, he had in mind the things noted above: preaching, teaching, prayer, praise, contribution, and the supper. This is shown in the many “one-another” passages in the New Testament which find application in the church, when all are assembled, cf. I Thes. 4:18; 5:11, Heb. 10:24-25, I Pet. 4:10, Rom. 15:14, Heb. 3:13. In Ephesians 5:19, “Speaking to yourselves in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs” is translated “speaking to one another” in many translations, including the NIV and NASB, and in this it echoes Paul’s statement of fact that when the Corinthians gathered together, “every one of you hath a psalm, hath a doctrine, hath a tongue, hath a revelation, hath an interpretation.” I Cor. 14:26. Colossians 3:16 parallels Eph. 5:19, “teaching and admonishing one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs.” When does this occur? Only out of the church?
Additionally there is the ordinance or rite of baptism, which is administered only as new believers on Jesus Christ are added to the church. Ordinance is sometimes translated “tradition.” But more than this an ordinance is a joint participation in the corporate life of the church. In baptism a new believer professes his or her newfound faith in Christ to the church. In the world there are public ordinances that govern life in society. In the church there are ordinances for when we are assembled together. But many of the churches long ago changed some of these into “sacraments,” or “means of grace,” while others limited the ordinances to two, these being the Lord’s supper and baptism. Thus Paul’s original meaning has been completely lost.
If the reader will examine the immediate context of Paul’s praise of Corinth for keeping the ordinances, he will find that Paul did not proceed from that point into teaching on either the Lord’s supper or baptism, but into teaching on prayer in the church, in particular, prayer with no head covering for men and with head covering for women. (Teaching concerning the Lord’s supper followed this.) This was an ordinance, and Paul ended his teaching with the statement, “If any man seem to be contentious, we have no such custom, neither the churches of God.” I Cor. 11:16. You see, it was “only” an ordinance or custom, and yet Paul taught that the churches had no right to change it. We are to understand from this that 1) there are not only two ordinances, 2) the ordinances concern the operation of the church when all are assembled, and 3) the churches do not and did not have liberty to change the ordinances.
The problems manifested in “the church fathers” became set in ecclesiastical stone by the fourth century, in part at the time of the legalization of Christianity in the Edict of Milan (313), and in total at the imposition of Christianity as the state religion in the Edict of Thessalonica (380). These edicts encouraged an alliance of church “bishoprics” with the civil rulers. “Ecclesiastical offices” were thus justified from Scripture, and they continue apace to the present day, though almost all have been divested of any civil authority after centuries of Christians wielding a state-sanctioned sword against either unbelievers or Christian “heretics.” What remains common in every corner of Christendom is “the bishopric” in the form of “one man, one church.” These presume authority over the elders just as Augustine, Origen, Ambrose, Chrysostom, etc., did long ago.
The political developments in the fourth century, though not the cause of an unholy alliance between the church and Rome, surely facilitated the alliance. The church could have and should have resisted this alliance, but it didn’t, for by this time many of the unconverted were pressing into the church for its newfound social and economic advantages. Christianity was becoming respectable and losing its pilgrim character. While at the beginning of the fourth century a small percentage of people in the Roman empire were Christians, by the end of the century a far greater proportion of the population called themselves Christians. (Remember, Catholicism found its center in Rome.) Many of these people were undoubtedly attracted to Christianity by the corrupt teachings of “the church fathers,” who taught a religion in keeping with the world religions, a religion of “faith and works” that took Christ down off His cross.
I will hazard the opinion that the fourth century was the time in church history when the church went from consisting mostly of believers to mostly unbelievers. While men slept, Satan sowed the tares. This was both cause and effect of the ascendance of the doctrines favored by “the church fathers.” I cannot emphasize this too strongly: the dramatic increase in unbelievers in the church and the establishment of false doctrines as Christian dogma were parallel developments. What followed was the reign of Catholicism as “the Church” for a thousand years. The first centuries of this millennium were called the Dark Ages for good reason. Of course there were dissenting churches all through this period of history. But Catholicism reigned.
Thus what was likely the doctrine of the Nicolaitanes was permanently settled, instituted, and established in the churches around seventeen hundred years ago, in the teachings of “the church fathers,” aided and abetted by political developments in the world leading to increasing numbers of unbelievers in the church who favored false doctrines no different from the religious traditions of the world-system.
It is widely held that the church councils—meetings of “the bishops”—subsequent to the apostolic age were necessary to clarify or develop Christian doctrine. Not true. The Word was sufficient in the first century and it has been sufficient in every century since. The Word, ministered by the brethren under the oversight of the elders in independent and autonomous but cooperative churches, was Christ’s design for the churches and protection against or limitation of the spread of heresies. The controversies that occasioned the ecumenical councils were only contro-versies in the churches that allowed them to be. Faithful churches rejected these controversies out of hand. If the reader will examine the particular controversies (this is easily done on the internet) he will find that the most elementary and indisputable doctrines were disputed, and usually the doctrine involved the deity and humanity of our Lord Jesus Christ.
But where is the controversy? The deity and humanity of Christ is only a controversy among empty professors of faith, or natural men, for whom it is impossible to believe that God and man could indwell the same body, or among the church’s academics who make a living debating these things. These things were controversial in Christendom, but not in churches where the Word of God was simply believed. Jesus Christ continually referred to Himself as the Son of man; and when He was acknowledged as the Son of God He did not deny it. He was God, and He was man, and that is the end of it. I know and believe that Jesus was God and man. For a believer this is the simplicity that is in Christ Jesus. If a Bible student cannot comprehend the deity and humanity of Jesus from the gospels and the epistles, then no pronouncement of a church council can do anything but bolster his intellect. By contrast the saints know in their hearts that Jesus is both God and man. It is believed and known in the Spirit of God, and not apart from the Spirit.
The “ecumenical councils” of the post-apostolic age are also justified on the pattern of the council in Jerusalem in Acts 15. There is not a shred of warrant for this. The council in Jerusalem took place while the New Testament canon was yet incomplete. Further, the controversy was over Judaizers trying to mingle law and grace. This presented difficulty because many of the new Christians brought their Jewish heritage with them into the church, and some of these had difficulty shedding old convictions. (The Gentiles have the same difficulty when we bring our old religious convictions, after the precepts of the world, into the church.) It should therefore be no surprise that this was a controversy during the transition period in which the New Testament revelation was not fully formed. Also, the gospel, initially preached to the Jews, was now going out to the Gentiles as well. The judgment of the council at Jerusalem became part of this revelation, which we know as the NT canon.Subsequent to the church’s approval of the NT canon there was never again a need for a church council. What was needed was for independent and autonomous Bible-believing churches to continue, and to stand, in the faith.
This, however, raises the issue of the church’s approval of the NT canon. Did not this require a church council subsequent to the one in Jerusalem and subsequent to the completion of the books which would become part of the canon? A fair question. However none of the ecumenical councils ever addressed the issue, but only regional or provincial councils. (Howard F. Vos, in “Exploring Church History,” credits a local council at Hippo in 393 for first articulating the twenty-seven book NT canon.) There was never a universal edict authorizing the canon.
Thus, since no “ecumenical council” ever approved the New Testament canon—and yet we have a New Testament canon (the Catholics and Mormons disagree on its contents)—it must not have been necessary. What was necessary was the sovereign Spirit of God working in the churches to approve that which was excellent. And since the Spirit works through human instruments, we are indebted to the churches at the end of the first century A.D., around which time the last book of the New Testament was written, the Revelation to John. (Jesus alluded to the church’s part in approving the New Testament canon when He commended the church at Ephesus, “Thou hast tried them which say they are apostles, and are not, and hast found them liars.” Rev. 2:2. The New Testament was written by the apostles, or men known and loved by the apostles.)
Disputes in parts of the church over which letters deserved inclusion in the New Testament went on for several centuries. But the books we have today were likely approved in the churches of believers near the end of the first century. The books simply weren’t all compiled in one volume yet, but instead circulated as individual letters. Believers held fast to these sure-fire letters written by the apostles or men known to the apostles; heretics clamored for the inclusion of additional letters that would have made a shambles of NT theology. If God inspired the writers of Scripture, He was fully able to ensure that the right letters were published. To this end He used the churches and not church councils.
The origins of ecclesiasticism, a corrupt doctrine of the church (and an ironic name for a corruption of NT ecclesiology), are found at the beginning of the age, even during the lifetimes of the apostles. The apostles did spiritual battle with the false doctrines and false teachers. But after the apostles’ demise it was up to the local churches to take up the banner. While a few of the churches stood firm in the faith, by the fourth century most had succumbed to ecclesiasticism.
The reigning set of ordinances or traditions governing and in fact determining Christian ministry has far more to do with the teachings and practices established at the time of “the church fathers” than with the teachings of the apostles of Jesus Christ. In virtually every corner of Christendom “the church fathers” have trumped the apostles. However there remains “a remnant according to the election of grace,” There are believers to be found in most if not all of these churches. Many churches have but a few believers. Some churches have many believers. That is the kingdom of heaven in its mystery form, taught by Jesus in Matthew 13. Jesus is building His church but it is not the one you can see.