December 18, 2017

Church History Teaches…

Edward M. Panosian

It is fashionable to deny that history “teaches” anything, yet there is ample opportunity for any observant person to find fundamental principles and patterns in history. The Bible-believer who studies the history of the Church of Jesus Christ cannot but be impressed with certain basic and recurrent truths concerning that Church.

The Whetstone of Persecution

One compelling fact of history is that the Church has always had its strongest, most effective, and most incisive message when it has been most opposed to and by the world system. Persecution, not accommodation, has been the whetstone of the sword of the Gospel. When it has been at odds with the world, the Christian testimony has grown in the world. When the heathen were persecuting and trying to destroy the people of God in the fifth century, Augustine stated, “the same stroke which crushed the straw separated the pure grain which the Lord had chosen.” What men intended for evil, God used for good.

Purification and separation of truth from error has always resulted from the pressures of those who oppose the truth, never from the tolerant appeals of error. This, to be sure, is only logical. Those who see no difference between themselves and those who claim to follow the Lord Jesus Christ — whether in speech, action, appearance, or attitude — are not likely to see any need to accept the message that Christians proclaim. It was the superior moral quality of the lives of second and third century believers that could not be gainsaid by the heathen. The anonymous epistle to Diognetus (an inquiring heathen of the second century), called a “pearl” of post-apostolic Christian literature, illustrates this principle. A portion of chapter five reads:

The Christians are not distinguished from other men by country, by language, nor by civil institutions. For they neither dwell in cities by themselves, nor use a peculiar tongue, nor lead a singular mode of life. They dwell in the Grecian or barbarian cities, as the case may be; they follow the usage of the country in dress, food, and the other affairs of life. Yet they profess a wonderful and confessedly paradoxical conduct. They dwell in their own native lands, but as strangers. They take part in all things, as citizens; and they suffer all things, as foreigners. Every foreign country is a fatherland to them, and every native land is a foreign. They marry, like all others; they have children; but they do not cast away their offspring. They have the table in common, but not wives. They are in the flesh, but do not live after the flesh. They live upon earth, but are citizens of heaven. They obey the existing laws, and excel the laws by their lives. They love all, and are persecuted by all. They are unknown, and yet they are condemned. They are killed and are made alive. They are poor and make many rich. They lack all things, and in all things abound. They are reproached, and glory in their reproaches. They are calumniated, and are justified. They are cursed, and they bless. They receive scorn, and they give honor. They do good, and are punished; when punished, they rejoice, as being made alive. By the Jews they are attacked as aliens, and by the Greeks persecuted; and the cause of the enmity their enemies cannot tell.

Counterfeit Christians

This makes a second principle clear: Satan’s master device of opposition to God and to the people of God has been by counterfeit, not by contest. If persecution only strengthens what you are persecuting, then another approach is required: “if you can’t lick ‘em, join ‘em” is not of recent origin. Imitation may be the sincerest form of flattery, but when used to deceive and to deter men from God’s truth, it is the most subtle form of fatality. Satan set the pattern for this with his temptations in Eden, and after Christ’s 40 days in the wilderness. The god of this world offered and promised what the God of Heaven had purposed, but without God and contrary to God’s means and will. The devil and his demons have been doing this ever since.

The goals and dreams of the humanists of our time — whether they are “Liberals” (“infidels” in this context, or “without Biblical faith”), evolutionary sociologists, myopic politicians, or naturalistic humanitarians — are little different from those which God’s Word makes clear as His purpose for man. They seek and promise peace by human contrivances; the Prince of Peace offers peace in the heart of every blood-washed believer and someday for all the earth when He shall reign in righteousness and peace. They seek the acknowledgment of brotherhood among all men; the Scripture teaches two brotherhoods- that of sinners, who “are of your father, the devil,” and that of Biblical saints, the brotherhood of believers in every age. Man’s ideal conceptions of justice, equality, prosperity, and the “good life” are noble, but the fallacious foundations (natural evolution, inherent goodness, and the ability to develop toward individual and universal perfection) defy his dreams.

The world’s religions, ancient and modern, attempt the same counterfeit of the truth. Many of them retained elements of the original universal knowledge of the true God; Romans 1:20 says, “For the invisible things of him from the creation of the world are clearly seen, being understood by the things that are made, even his eternal power and Godhead; so that they are without excuse.” But the same passage teaches that they corrupted and perverted that knowledge because of their unwillingness to retain the true God in their knowledge. “Professing themselves to be wise, they became fools, and changed the glory of the uncorruptible God into an image made like to corruptible man, and to birds, and fourfooted beasts, and creeping things” (Romans 1:22, 23). Heathen religions — whether typical of ancient ritual and modern philosophy or of ancient philosophy and modern ritual — contain some truth, but any truth that denies Him Who is the Truth becomes damning error. Truth mixed with error is the most fatal form of error; it is not truth.

Water is an excellent illustration of this fact: two identical glasses of water are offered-to one has been added a small, but lethal, quantity of an odorless, colorless, tasteless poison. The water was no less pure or wholesome than the water in the other, but if a person knows what has been added to the one, he no longer refers to it as a glass of water. It is poison; the alien addition has contaminated every molecule of the pure. Likewise, a person does not plead the virtue of all the good, clean water in the glass of poison; rather he warns against even one sip, because “a little leaven leaveneth the whole lump” (l Corinthians 5:6). Yet how often is today’s Christian unwittingly conditioned to be appreciative of the good in mixtures of good and evil and thus tolerant of the evil. A brief reflection should make it clear that we should be conditioned to look for and point out the evil in such a mixture and “touch not the unclean thing” (II Corinthians 6:17).

The Diligent Minority

A third observation of the acts of the Christian Church through the centuries is that the people who do the work of God are usually a minority. Popularity and numerical prosperity have never been the domain of the faithful. The omnipotent God seems to delight in showing Himself strong by moving among few men, so that thoughtful people cannot doubt that God did it. Gideon’s 300 warriors were not victorious because they had superior manpower, The Apostle Paul was not sponsored on his missionary journeys by the National Council of Synagogues with the blessing of the Provincial Council on Communications. Luther, at the Imperial Diet in the city of Worms in 1521, was not exactly popular with the ecclesiastical rulers of his day; he was one man, but he was a man of God.

The underground Church, the trail of truth preserved through the centuries by some of the groups outside the established church, was often persecuted, overtly and covertly, and never enjoyed the favor of ecclesiastical, political, social, economic, or intellectual prestige. The faithful remnant in each age was an affront to the compromising and corrupted majority and, like their divine Founder, was despised and rejected of men, But through this remnant came the preservation and transmission of the true Word of God. Through a revival of emphasis on truths preserved by a long line of these faithful ones came the Reformation.

God Uses Men

In the third lesson is a hint of the fourth. Not only are God’s people in a minority; they are led, also, by individual men. God does not use institutions or organizations or denominations primarily; he uses men. Institutions, organizations, and denominations may be, and have sometimes been, useful tools, but their usefulness has depended on the fidelity of the men who guide them. There is a sterling quality to faithful men. A Gideon, a Paul, or a Luther willing to carry out God’s orders becomes invincible before his enemies, who are God’s enemies. Someone has well said that an institution is the lengthened shadow of a man. How often have once-spiritual institutions declined to only a shadow of the principles and purposes of the men who were their founders. Only as men, individual men, chosen and used of the Lord, are faithful to Him in the leadership of others — in the family, in the Christian institutions of learning, in the churches, in the nation — can those institutions prosper and be blessed.

God’s Work God’s Way

Because individual men are instruments of God for the blessing or the chastening of His people, it is necessary that they “strive lawfully.” The lesson from the past, both from the Scriptures and from the subsequent historical record, is that the Christian must ‘be wary of using Satan’s weapons to do God’s work. He Who will not give His glory to another, in Whom we live and move and have our being, by Whose word of power all things arc sustained, insists that His work be done in His way. Christians in this generation — and the world watching them — have seen too much unlawful striving in the interest of “good” goals. Too often men’s opinions and human “wisdom,” when they are contrary to Biblical principles, have dictated “better” methods. But where God has spoken, the phrases “in my opinion,” and “I think” are irrelevant and rebellious, and invite God’s judgment.

Those who have read of Uzza’s being smitten dead by God for using his hand to steady the ark of God (when the oxen pulling the cart stumbled) have marveled at God’s severity (I Chronicles 13). Was not Uzza doing a good work in protecting the ark? Perhaps, but the God of the ark had clearly commanded how the ark was to be transported and by whom (Numbers 4). If the ark had been carried as God had commanded, it would not have been necessary to disobey God again in “protecting” the ark. One sin produced another; neither was necessary. God, Whose words of promise and blessing are sure and true, is no less sure and true in His words of command and warning.

How often today is conviction supplanted by compromise, courage by convenience, and God’s demands by man’s devisings. How often people prefer crowds to character, quantity to quality, and popularity to purity. Only the man of character will see crowds under conviction, only the quality of spiritual courage will produce a quantity who will stand in the day of testing, and only the purity of obedience will be popular with Heaven.

Lessons to Live By

These five lessons which Church history teaches match the five fingers on a hand. Yet these five .are strong fingers which, when manipulated together, make a hand well practiced to wield the weapons of spiritual warfare. Realizing that the church is strongest when most opposed to and by the world, that Satan’s master plan is to counterfeit the Truth, that God’s people are usually a minority, that God uses individual men to do His will, and that Christians must avoid using Satan’s weapons to do God’s work — the soldier is ready to do battle for God, to fight the good fight of faith.


First published in Faith for the Family, January / February 1974. Republished here by permission.


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